making waves

PositureWaving is a funny thing if you think about it. Why do we choose to flap our hands around in order to signal something? And it can mean many different things.

A wave can mean ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. It can say, “I’m over here”. It can be a call for help. When the Queen does her wrist rotation I think it is saying, “One is grateful that you have come out to see one.” We have Mexican Waves at sporting events, which I think either means ‘We’re really bored’ or ‘We’re really enjoying ourselves’. And deaf people applaud by waving their hands.

Of course it’s really important to know what sort of wave is happening to you in order to respond appropriately. I was recently on a boat with a friend and as we passed other boats there were gentle waves that acknowledged that we too were on a boat. But as we were approaching our mooring we saw a couple of people clinging to an upturned sailing dinghy who were waving frantically at us to attract our attention and get some help because they were being taken out to sea on the tide. If we had simply waved back in acknowledgement it would not have been good (we tried to help for a while but then the lifeboat arrived so we left it to the professionals).

In just over a week’s time I am going to be speaking in a church for their Harvest Festival and I have decided to focus on waving. Why? One of the ways in which people in Biblical days celebrated harvest was by waving some of the produce that they had gathered. People would bring the items with them to a celebration and then at a given moment would all wave them in the air. I have come across different explanations for what they were doing (and how they waved them) but in short it seems to me that they were waving them in acknowledgement that God had once again provided for them, that he was faithful in the reliable rotation of the seasons he had programmed into our annual journey around the sun, and to express gratitude to him for all that they had received. Doing it on your own would not feel very impressive, but imagine being in a big crowd where everyone was waving a sheaf of corn, for example. It would be a spectacular reminder of just how many people were feeling blessed and grateful.

Few of us nowadays harvest our own crops but harvest festivals persist as reminders that we should be grateful to God for our planet and the way in which it provides nourishment for us. And we can be grateful too for those who do grow and harvest on our behalf, and even for those who transport them and who sell them to us. It’s a moment when our attitude of gratitude gets a boost and we are reminded to be grateful 24/7.

So what would you take to a Harvest festival to wave in order to show gratitude to God?

Be blessed, be a blessing

backhanded compliments

Following my lengthy period of convalescence after my surgery in February I am now back at work full-time. I was blessed by being able to phase my return slowly rather than jump straight back in. And this has led to some very interesting comments from people who saw me early on in the process and have seen me again recently.

complimentary nutsWith the intention to encourage me and generally be upbeat about my progress people have been making comments about how much better I am looking. They don’t mean that I have grown more handsome, but that I am looking healthier. Some have been even more specific and have commented on how I have much more colour in my cheeks and generally look a more ‘normal’ hue. And some have gone even further by suggesting that they were rather worried when they first saw me because I looked pale and ghostly, but now I looked well. One colleague even suggested that when she first saw me I wasn’t so much pale as translucent but I was now looking better!

Now I know that these compliments are meant to be positive and making me feel good about the extent of the improvement that they can see in me. And I do receive the comments in the spirit with which they are offered. I am grateful for people’s love, concern, encouragement and prayers. But there’s a little part of me that asks myself just how ill I must have looked a couple of months ago. I didn’t think I looked that bad, but (bearing in mind that these conversations take place on a very regular basis) I must have looked more poorly than I realised.

I am going to try to take the positive aspects of the comments on board much more and not allow the negatives to bother me because I know that my health is much improved, my stamina is better and I am far more capable of living normally (not the same as ‘being normal’ – my wife will testify to that!) than I was previously during my convalescence. I am so grateful for that: grateful to the medical staff who have been brilliant, to my family who have been wonderfully supportive and encouraging, to the many of you and those in the churches I serve who have been praying for me, and to God who has sustained me and created bodies in such a way that they can recover from trauma.

But (and this won’t surprise regular readers) I had another thought. If we are willing to comment on someone’s physical health, why not their spiritual health too? How often do we take the time to say encouraging things about people’s spiritual growth and health? Do we take the time to speak positively to someone after they have preached – more than just, “Thank you” – and share how God spoke to us through them? Or do we take the time to reflect on the way someone has show spiritual maturity through difficult circumstances and encourage them about that? How about finding someone who has prayed for us and sharing how we have seen answers to those prayers? What about simply encouraging someone because we have caught a glimpse of Jesus through them?

Be blessed, be a blessing

spiritual fitness centres?

I have taken the plunge and joined a gym (and yes, that is a mixed metaphor as they don’t have a pool). I have done so in order to continue the rehabilitation process following my surgery earlier in the year.

fitness Series 1It’s the first time I have joined a gym and the induction was an interesting experience for a novice like me. The first thing I was asked was what I wanted to achieve. I said that I want to improve my general fitness and stamina and also rebuild some of the muscle bulk that I had lost during the past six months (the gym is aware of my cardiac surgery). So the instructor showed me a number of machines and devices that I could use in order to achieve these goals. I am not sure that some of them would not have been out of place in a medieval torture chamber, but they are all designed to work on a different set of muscles, or to improve general stamina and fitness. A couple of days afterwards I am now feeling the burn in some of the muscle groups that weren’t previously exercised too much. But I am also confident that I can achieve what I want to achieve if I am regular in my attendance and work hard when I am there.

When I was on some of the machines that work on the basis of resistance against the muscles they are designed to enhance I was shown how to adjust them by engaging different quantities of weights. As I am not a weightlifter and am looking to start slowly most of the time the instructor advised reducing the weights to a level that I think others might categorise as ‘puny’. Apparently it’s important not to start too high but to build up gradually so that the muscles get warmed up and are not stressed. I can cope with that, I think.

I also had a go on a treadmill – getting up to a decent walking pace and adjusting the angle so that I was walking uphill. I felt quite pleased with myself until I noticed that further along were some people who were running rather fast on similar machines. In comparison to them I was going at a snail’s pace. But walking fast is what I need to do to raise my heart rate without over-stressing, so I am happy with that.

I imagine that a lot of the lycra-clad gym-dwellers would not think my efforts are very impressive. I reckon that there are plenty of people who are older than me who are able to lift more weights and go faster. But that’s not the point. I have to start from where I am and aim for the goals I have set myself. Others will be fitter, faster and stronger and will other goals that are not mine. I wish them well in that but I am not in competition with them, I am on my own journey of fitness.

Reflecting on my first experience of the gym I wonder whether there are a few lessons that we need to learn in churches.

I think it’s really important to recognise that people are at different places in their journey of faith, and to consider how we might help them to grow from the point they are at now, rather than offering a one-size fits all solution. When I was getting ready to be baptised at the age of 13 I had a series of sessions with a more experienced Christian who helped me to understand more of my faith and how to follow Jesus more closely. Sadly after I was baptised that stopped and I was not mature or confident enough to ask that we continue. But can we offer that to those who want it?

And on a similar theme do all of the small groups in a church operate at the same ‘level’? My personal preference would be that all of them are exploring the same theme at the same time so that the church as a whole has this in common. But almost all of the study material I have seen always seems to be pitched at just one level. I am not talking about academic levels or even levels of spiritual comprehension, but what if people were offered the opportunity to explore the same theme in different ways that suited their preferred learning style and also that understood that people want to explore at different depths, and which enabled people to engage with the theme in ways that most suited their spiritual preferences? The material might be more complicated to create (although I would love to have a go) but I think it would be far more healthy and helpful in the church and perhaps more people might engage with the groups. And what if then there were collective opportunities for people to share together what they have experienced in their groups and encourage one another? Would that be a healthier model of church?

I’m not expecting that we introduce spiritual torture devices to achieve this – the Spanish Inquisition should remain a hideous historical event (cue “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”). But I think we should recognise that people are at different stages in their journey of faith and that they find it easier to encounter God in different ways. So some people find meditation and contemplation really helpful while others find that they are closer to God in serving others and still others prefer energetic worship, but all can enable an encounter with God. (For more on this read Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas.)

I have found my spiritual home in the Baptist church family. One of the distinctives is an emphasis that all of us can encounter God, can serve him and other people, and that he speaks through whomever he chooses to speak (so we should listen to one another). We summarise it as ‘the priesthood of all believers’. As I see it those who are in ‘leadership’ positions are there to serve the church and enable everyone to grow in the depth of their relationship with Jesus and to live out their faith in their daily lives. They are not ‘in charge’, nor are they more important than anyone else. There’s not meant to be a hierarchy, but somehow it feels as if there is, with people putting others on high spiritual pedestals (or at least on small raised areas) above them. Other church traditions have a more overt and acknowledged hierarchical approach. But we do ourselves a disservice and perhaps even undermine what God’s Spirit is doing in each of us if we start comparing ourselves with one another and playing a version of church Top Trumps. It’s a fine line between seeking to emulate those we admire and feeling like we are unworthy because we are not like them. But God doesn’t want you to be like anyone else, he wants to help you to become the best you that you can be.

I am sure that I am being idealistic here. But what’s wrong with pursuing an ideal? And if I am going a long way down this line, maybe we should stop calling ourselves churches and start to call ourselves spiritual fitness centres in order to embed these ideas?

Or maybe not.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

crouching God, hidden pain

This is a slightly edited version of my ‘thought for the week’ yesterday – sent to the Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association…

11/9/2018 is a landmark day (or 9/11/2018 if you are American). (Cue trumpet fanfare, ticker-tape parade and 21 gun salute… or maybe not). That day was the last day of my cardiac rehabilitation process. While I am still not 100% back to where I was before the surgery and still have one or two further appointments, I reckon I am about 95% and today is a significant milestone along the way that demonstrates the progress that has been made since my surgery back in February. I am now back at work full time.

Immense thanks go to my amazing wife, Sally, who has been a wonderful support and encourager throughout the time. Immense thanks go to the surgical, medical and rehab teams at the Essex Cardio-Thoracic Centre in Basildon who have looked after me incredibly. And immense thanks go to you and your churches for the many prayers that have been offered on my behalf – I have been acutely conscious of them and am sure that part of my progress is attributable to them. But most of all immense thanks go to my Lord who has been with me from start to finish along the difficult journey, and of course continues to do so. And I have discovered a new way in which he is with us.

SilhouetteYou may recall that in my recent Thoughts for the Week (not published here) I have been reflecting on Psalm 40. In verse 1 David wrote: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” In my first reflection on this psalm I noted how it must have felt to David to have God give him his attention. But since then I have done some more research on the Psalm and have discovered that our English translation is somewhat inadequate, albeit literally correct. The sense in the original Hebrew language is not of God turning to face David as he was in the slimy pit so much as ‘he crouched down to me and listened to me crying’. The image is of a loving parent who sees their child in tears and gets down on the floor to be with them in their sorrow so that they know that they are not alone. There’s no suggestion of wiping away tears or words of comfort, or attempting to explain what’s going on, just a God who crouches down with us and listens to our crying. That’s an astonishing thing for David to write about God when the gods of other nations were warlike and needing to be invoked or remote and needing to be appeased. I love it, and I have experienced it.

9/11 is the anniversary of the day when terrorists hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and another crashed as the passengers sought to prevent greater tragedy. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

There are many in today’s world who are victims of natural disasters, human violence and tragic circumstances. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

I am conscious that some of you and some of your church are going through deep, dark valleys at the moment. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

May we all experience and bring his reassuring presence in our life and ministry.

taking the time to thank

Thank youThis week I have been blessed by two people who have taken the time to thank me for something I said or wrote. It was unexpected and a real encouragement and blessing to be thanked – one electronically and the other by a card in the post.

I like to encourage an attitude of gratitude in myself and in others (as much as anything else I like the way it rhymes). When I am blessed by someone else in this way it not only boosts and encourages me, it also encourages me to do the same. So, I wonder, why don’t we do more of it when it is so positive?

Sometimes we may struggle to find something to thank someone for. My wife told me that in a group discussion among spouses at the Bible College where I trained they were considering what to say when your other half has ‘preached a stinker’. One suggestion was, “It was a good text!” I hope not to hear that too often! But it represents an attitude of gratitude – there is almost always something good for which we can be thankful in any circumstance.

Recently a lorry bumped the back of my car while we were in a slow moving queue of traffic on the M25. It has only caused minor damage to my bumper but it has caused major hassle with insurers as the lorry is from overseas. So, where’s the good for which I can be thankful?

Well, one is that nobody was injured. Another is that the driver spoke excellent English and knew which documents I would need to see. Another is that the traffic around us was moving so slowly that we were able to pull across onto the hard shoulder safely from the middle lane (and get back into the ‘flow’ of traffic after exchanging details). Another is that my car is still very much driveable. Another is that we were able to get moving again and get off the M25 before it was brought to a complete standstill.

Perhaps it’s a silly example, but I think it illustrates what an attitude of gratitude looks like. And I am trying to carry that through in all of my frustrating conversations with insurance people by making sure that I thank them for doing their job (even when it is frustrating that they can’t do what I want). So I am trying to put what I am calling the 5T principle into practice – taking the time to thank.

Another reason why we may not thank people is that it does take a bit of extra thought and effort. 5T includes ‘taking the time’ and that’s not always easy to do when we are busy people. But perhaps because it is not easy to do the effort is even more appreciated and worth it. Someone took the time to send me a message to thank me for something I wrote. Another person took the time to get a card, write it, address it, put a stamp on it and then post it! In addition to the words, the act itself speaks volumes and it has encouraged me to take the time to thank.

And as a follower of Jesus I also want to remember to put the 5T principle into practice in my relationship with God. I have so much to be grateful to him for that I won’t run out of ideas!

Because I am trying to put the 5T principle into practice – taking the time to thank – thank you for reading this bloggage.

Be blessed, be a blessing

dancin’ like Mrs May

woman in peach color and red floral sweatshirt holding gray jacket
Photo by Godisable Jacob on Pexels.com

These week TV news programmes showed us the British Prime Minister Theresa May on a trade visit to some African countries. And we were shown two separate occasions when she attempted to dance as she was welcomed in the traditional way with singing and dancing.

At first I cringed. The dancing was on a par with my ‘Dad dancing’, for which I get mocked at weddings, and the whole world was watching! Social media has subsequently enjoyed the opportunities to mock and ridicule with lots of different memes emerging.

But this morning I paused as I watched a video of Mrs May with superimposed bandy elastic legs and I decided that not only was I being unfair to her, but I was also missing the point completely. I don’t agree with much of what Mrs May is doing politically, and she is being hamstrung by a party that is riven by those with their own leadership ambitions, others who believe she is too liberal and others who believe she is too right wing. It’s not an easy job.

But here, knowing that in all likelihood she would be ridiculed for it, Mrs May took the courageous step to respond to her hosts and to dance as part of the welcome she received. Well done Mrs May. It would have been easy to stand still and applaud politely in true British fashion but she entered into the spirit of things and in doing so made a strong statement that she was willing to risk her reputation in order to honour her hosts. Good on her.

I also wonder how many of those who are now mocking Mrs May would have had the courage to do what she did? I am not sure I would. And how many of these people have somewhere got a poster, a sticker or a picture saying, “Dance like no-one is watching”? How do we dance when someone is?

Be blessed, be a blessing

playground politics

Picture of Childrens Playground - Free Pictures - FreeFoto.com

A long time ago I upset our local MP by posting a bloggage that revealed how he had voted against a motion that highlighted the issue of the growth in demand for foodbanks. You can see it here if you want, and it led to a lengthy correspondence with him (he was still unhappy at the end of it). But it was an unusual occurrence because although I consider myself to be a political person and have strong opinions about many issues, I don’t tend to post them here. But it may be time to upset some more politicians…

And it’s because of playground politics.

I would like to think that those who enter politics do so in order to serve the country. I would like to think that those who enter politics do so particularly to care for those who are weakest and most vulnerable in our society. I would like to think that those who seek office do so in order to make a positive difference. And I am sure that if you asked any politician whether this is the case they would respond positively (or if not they would evade the question by answering a different one they would rather have been asked).

But increasingly to me it appears as if many politicians are acting in the interests of their party rather than the interests of the country, and some are even acting in the interests of their own political ambitions above even the interests of their party! How can that serve the interests of those who are most vulnerable and marginalised?

There are all sorts of allegations being made about lies and broken promises by each of our political parties and by the different sides of the EU referendum but the level of disingenuous rhetoric that I perceive is greater today than at any other time. One of the most obvious examples is the £350million for the NHS promised on the side of the notorious bus was an outright lie and nobody now is making that promise. It really bothers me that some of the leading Brexit politicians in this country are busy squirreling their wealth overseas while telling us that there’s nothing to worry about.

But what really bothers me is when politicians (in the UK and USA) label opposing views with a blanket phrase that allegedly discounts them immediately without engaging in the issues being raised. So in this country any criticism of the Brexit plans (or lack thereof) is labelled ‘Project Fear’ and by doing so the criticisms can be ignored in one fell swoop. In the USA criticisms are labelled ‘Fake News’ in the same way. And people believe this because they trust the politicians. If we let our politicians get away with this we may not be surprised if we eventually find that they have removed any sense of personal or corporate accountability for their actions.

It feels like the playground when a child’s taunt would receive responses like, “I’m rubber, you’re glue: whatever you say you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Or the annoying constant retort, “I know you are, but what am I?”

So what can we do?

Write to your MP when there’s an issue that concerns you. You can send them an email through https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/contact-your-mp/ They are obliged to write back. And if the answer is unsatisfactory, write again. You can use the same process to write directly to the Prime Minister or any other politician (email addresses are firstname.surname.mp@parliament.uk).

Join campaigning groups.

Join with others who want to make a difference to their community in groups such as Citizens UK

Join with your local church who will (hopefully) be working to make a positive difference to some of those on the margins of our society.

And just maybe we can leave the playground and return to the nobler purpose of politics.

Be blessed, be a blessing