Recently Sally (my best friend to whom I am married) and I went with a couple of friends on holiday to Center Parcs in UK. It was a great time away and we enjoyed a range of different activities including crossbow shooting, laser clay pigeon shooting, an escape room, meeting some owls as well as splashing in the pool, screaming down the rapids and enjoying being leisurely.
I was interested that at the end of some of the activities (the competitive ones) certificates were awarded for those who had been best (and we got one for escaping from the escape room too). I can understand that for some children that’s exciting but at first I felt slightly patronised when I was awarded my certificate for coming third in the laser clay pigeon shooting (Sally came first). It didn’t feel like much of an achievement. (Of course when I was top in the crossbow shooting I suddenly decided that the certificates were more significant!). However it still felt a bit like some school sports days where everyone gets a medal regardless of where they finished. And that felt a bit silly for people in their 50s!
But on reflection I realised that encouraging one another and building each other up is a really important thing to do. Perhaps we ought to be awarding certificates for: the timeliest provision of a cup of tea/coffee at work; the tidiest bedroom in the house; the tastiest meal of the week; the kindest act in public…
Of course, that’s silly isn’t it? But just for a moment think about the awards that you might receive. Think about the awards that you might give to someone else. And rather than make a certificate (you can if you want) why not take the time to go and tell that person that you appreciate what they have done? Why not give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done by yourself?
There are quite a few times in the New Testament where churches are urged to be places of encouragement and affirmation. Some are good at it, others need some more practice. But the problem I can see is that sometimes we (churches) have kept the encouraging and affirming for ourselves. I don’t think that we’re meant to limit our appreciation. I think an attitude of gratitude should be one of the distinctive things about followers of Jesus that others should be able to see in us and receive from us as a sign of how much God appreciates them too.
I recently smashed my little toe against a chair leg. It hurt. I yelped. The pain was so bad that as I looked down at my little toe I half expected to see it hanging limply from my foot, or even having been amputated altogether. It wasn’t, it was still attached correctly. But it hurt.
Over the next 24 hours the toe gradually grew purpler, remaining as tender as ever. Then other colours starting joining the party in my little toe and migrating across the whole of my foot. I was sure that my toe was not broken because when I (like a brave little soldier) flexed my toes it joined all the others in bowing its toenail head. It hurt, but it worked.
Having a poorly little toe had several wider effects. One was that it affected my gait slightly. I don’t think I limped but there were occasions when I shuffled. Another was that putting shoes on or taking them off hurt a lot so once I got a pair of shoes on I tended to keep them on for the day. And I realised that I really did need a new pair of slippers which, had I been wearing them at the time of the impact between my toe and the chair leg might have protected me from the worst of the pain.
As I reflected (bravely) on the pain in my toe I was reminded of some words that Paul wrote about churches in 1 Corinthians 12 (NIVUK) – my emphasis:
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.13 For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 And so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.
I had taken my little toes for granted, ignoring them unless the nail became too long or sharp. They were weak, irrelevant and I could do without them. However, once one of them was damaged I realised just how much work they do, and how much they are needed to help me keep my balance and to walk. Tiny little things in relation to my whole body, but really useful.
A while ago I spoke about the ‘body of Christ’ metaphor in the Bible and spoke about armpits. If I asked people which part of the body they thought they were, I don’t think anyone would say that they are an armpit. But armpits are essential to help prevent the body from overheating. Why do they get hot and sweaty? They are one of the body’s heat-sinks, a place where excess heat is got rid of.
Now, if I am asked to speak about the ‘body of Christ’ metaphor I might also speak about little toes and how important they are even though they appear insignificant. I might speak about how the whole body is affected by a little toe that has been badly bruised by being smashed into a chair leg. I might speak about how it’s indispensable. I might even suggest that perhaps Paul wrote this after he had hurt his little toe at some stage because he seems to understand how much it affects you.
So if you are a part of a church and feel insignificant, perhaps you are a little toe. You may think that you don’t do anything but by being part of that church you are helping to provide balance. If you weren’t there the church would be diminished. You are part of what helps the church to move forward – God can speak through you in decision-making as much as anyone, which is why you ought to try to get to church meetings if you can.
And if you are in pain, ill or unwell, if the church is any good, it will affect them all. You won’t suffer alone. You won’t feel neglected. You won’t feel as if you don’t matter because the love that is received from God is shared between you, among you and through you all.
And if you are part of a church leadership, make sure you watch out for the little toes in your church. They are essential and as important as everyone else, and if they are hurting you ought to feel it too.
I have a lot of issues with some of the ways in which the Genesis Creation narratives are used by Christians. They are theological poetry (look at the way that the verses in Chapter 1 are set out in your Bible – not like prose, more like the settings of the Psalms) and narratives that are designed to emphasise the who rather than the how – who created, who humans are, who we are in relation to the planet, who we are in relation to one another. If we start to use these foundational chapters as a science textbook we are asking them to do something they are not designed to do – like using the clothes washing machine to wash the dishes.
But that’s not my major confession today. That relates to chapter 2 verse 18. Chapter 2 is very much the tale that tells us how we should be stewards of the planet and the life that teems on it rather than masters, and the story that shows us the importance of human relationships and companionship. The thing I have got wrong for all of the [coughs loudly to disguise the large number] years I have been reading the Bible is my growing unease with the description of Eve being created as “a helper suitable for him.”
My chauvinistic prejudices are shown in all their glory here if I explain that I had always assumed (and been unhappy with the implications of that assumption) that the ‘helper’ was subordinate to the person being helped. In effect, I had read ‘assistant’ or ‘support act’ rather than ‘helper’. Now don’t get me wrong, I fundamentally believe that all humans are made equal and I do not believe that men are superior to women – we all have the same ‘made-in-God’s-image-ness’ inherent in our being. And that is why I have been uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘helper’ because I had always read it as suggesting inferiority when I do not believe that there is any inferiority or superiority between any humans.
Part of the problem is that I have only read the passage in English and relied on the translators to give me the best equivalent word for the ancient Hebrew. If you explore the ancient Hebrew word which we translate as ‘helper’ it carries with it a sense of someone who assists and encourages. It is someone who provides support for someone who needs help.
And the same word is used several times in the Old Testament to describe the help which comes from God.
And we translate a Greek word used for the Holy Spirit as ‘helper’.
And when you add the word which qualifies ‘helper’ in Genesis 2 (which is translated as ‘fit for him’) it actually means ‘suitable for him’ or ‘matching him’. A literal translation is ‘like opposite him’. It actually has nothing to do with superiority.
I am much happier now. Especially when I reflect that ‘helpers’ are more often the experts. A good football coach has greater knowledge and experience which they use to help a team work together as well as possible and offer tactical changes and inspiration that help them to win games. A teacher has vastly more knowledge of their subject than their students as they help them to understand it. A breakdown assistance mechanic has far more knowledge and ability than the driver of a broken down car as they help them to get back on the road. And a magician’s assistant is often the one who does the difficult and dangerous work that makes the magician look good. A ‘helper’ is an empowerer who in many ways is greater than the one who is helped.
So that is my confession. I have wrestled uneasily with that word for so long – finding it jarring with what I believe about God and humanity – and now I can embrace it and relax knowing that because there are others around me who are my helpers I am able to grow beyond what I am now.
Today is the day after the 2019 General Election in the UK. Those who read this blog regularly probably won’t be surprised to learn that it was not the result I was hoping and praying for. So what do we do? We can stomp around in an angry huff, complaining about fairness and how the election campaign was fought. And that may make us feel better in a cathartic fashion, but it is not a sustainable solution. I want to offer HOPE and have four suggestions how we can do that:
If social media is anything to go by there will be a lot of people who are disappointed in the election result. Indeed, the way our electoral system works there are more people who voted against the new government than who voted for it. So how can you help others to come to terms with the result? Rather than ramping up the rhetoric can you offer gentle, calm words of wisdom? An offer of a cup of tea or coffee may seem insignificant but it shows you care when someone is sad. And a non-critical listening ear costs only time.
Can you explore ways of helping during the term of the next parliament? For example, can you help support a local foodbank. From being almost non-existent 10 years ago last year the Trussell Trust, which supports a national network of foodbanks, distributed ovr 1.6 million individual food parcels and they have seen a 23% increase in demand between April and September 2019 over the same period last year.
Can you help support those who feel more vulnerable because of the policies that are planned or will be maintained by the current government? It is not likely that things like Universal Credit are going to change anytime soon, so if you are aware of those who have been adversely affected by such policies try to find out whom you can help and how. It may not be you on your own, but with a group of friends you can make a difference.
We can all help with those who are lonely and isolated. Who in your neighbourhood could do with a visit, help with shopping, a lift or some lunch?
If we were to calculate the value in pounds of the work of volunteers in the UK it is estimated as about £24 billion per year! If it didn’t happen there would have be a massive hit on taxes to provide those things. This country has to rely on each other, not just on government. That includes you and me.
There is something we can all do to HELP.
There were a number of promises made by our new government during the election. There was a lot of doubt expressed about them, but we need to be vigilant now and seek to ensure that they are kept.
According to the Conservative Manifesto we should expect to see: 50,000 new nurses in the NHS; no income tax, VAT or National Insurance rises; pensions to rise by at least 2.5% each year; that no-one will need to sell their home to pay for care; progress on achieving zero emissions by 2050; £6.3bn spent on 2.2 million disadvantaged homes; a commitment to reduce poverty, including child poverty, through changes to tax and benefits; 250,000 extra childcare places; tuition fees frozen at £9,250; a new Manchester to Leeds rail line and £2bn to fill potholes; millions more invested every week in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure while controlling debt; and 20,000 more police.
Those are Manifesto commitments. So lets make sure that they happen. Check your newspapers and news bulletins. Try reading reports from those who don’t share your political leaning to inform yourself. Let’s be OBSERVANT.
I don’t mean here that we try to predict the future. In the Bible prophecy is more about speaking (God’s) truth in the present. So how can we be prophetic?
We can dissent. Baptist Christians (my church family) have their roots in dissent. They spoke out against injustice and evil where they saw it. In the bad old days when it was illegal to be a non-conformist many of them were imprisoned (John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while in prison). Christians have led campaigns for social change including the abolition of the slave trade and many of the social improvements in the Victorian era. The Drop the Debt and Jubilee 2000 campaigns began with Christians at the heart of them, but it’s not just Christians. Bob Geldof led a movement in the 1980s that culminated in Live Aid and (in my view) began the process of major fundraising events supporting the poorest and marginalised in our world that continues through Children in Need, Comic Relief, Sport Relief and others. Greta Thunberg is making a massive difference by raising the issue of climate change in a way that has motivated millions so that the powers that be are being challenged to increase the rate of change.
There’s a great tradition of prophetic action in the Bible – from sitting naked on a pile of ashes to marrying a woman of dubious reputation and taking her back when she was unfaithful. I am not suggesting either of those actions, but what action can you take? It may be something simple like ensuring you reduce your plastic consumption, recycling more or walking or cycling shorter journey distances to reduce your impact on the environment and encouraging others to do the same. It may be joining in with a protest march, or signing an online petition. There may well be other things you’re inspired to do. Do them.
We can all be PROPHETIC.
This follows on from being prophetic. As well as prophetic action to highlight issues and make a difference we need to engage with those in power – those who may be able to change things.
If we see injustice we should not sit by and remain silent about it. If there are things that are wrong we should campaign against them. And if there are others who are speaking out we should support them. If nothing else we should contact our MP and point out the issues (I think I have been put on an activist watchlist by my MP (Con) because he hasn’t replied to my last 2 emails where I pointed out flaws in some of the government plans and activities, but he did reply to the earlier ones). When I lived in a different constituency I engaged with my MP (Lib Dem) about Foodbanks and he didn’t like it (you can see it here – read the comments at the bottom of the bloggage for the full account) but it got a response.
Keep going. Encourage like-minded others to join you. One thing Greta Thunberg has reminded us about is that a single voice can make a difference, but it is most effective when it motivates the many voices. Speak truth to power.
It is suggested that one letter or email to an MP is considered to represent the views of hundreds. So imagine the impact of 100 people writing to the same MP.
If you are a praying person, pray for politicians too. They have a difficult job, whatever we think of them. When they do something you like, write to encourage them. Don’t only be a moaner (I need to do something about that).
At a time when it may feel that your vote didn’t count for much, let’s remember to keep ENGAGING with our politicians at national and local level.
I am sure that by now you will have realised that the 4 suggestions above give and acronym of HOPE. Let’s ensure that hope never dies and give it to those who feel hopeless.