a parble*

The mouse scurried silently along the skirting board, undetected and unnoticed by anyone, including the fierce tabby tomcat that was sleeping on the sofa. The mouse’s family had lived in the house for many generations and, for the most part, had lived undisturbed. The mice were able to exist in the house because nobody knew they were there.

The mice knew that they had to be wary. They knew that a cat would take great delight in capturing any of them that it saw and tormenting them before finally extinguishing their tiny mouse life. It would then present the dead body to the humans. The humans though it was a sacrificial offering to show loyalty but in fact it was a warning that they could be next if they failed to provide for the cat!

Cats were bigger than mice, more powerful, had stronger jaws and sharper claws. They were terrifying and a constant threat.

But mice were small, nimble and could squeeze through impossibly small gaps. They existed in the spaces where the humans and cats never went. Occasionally, like today, they ventured swiftly into the human/cat space in order to forage for food or bedding. It was necessary but dangerous. The humans never really noticed that the mice had been there, although they did wonder about how the small holes appeared in blankets or how a box of biscuits had split and there seemed to be fewer biscuits in there than the humans remembered.

Cats had a strong suspicion that there were mice in the house. They often saw tiny shadows flitting in the corners of rooms but by the time they arrived there was nothing there. The areas where the mice lived smelt different to the cats and they kept a wary eye out for the little vermin.

But the little vermin knew that they would not be welcome in the realm of the humans and cats. They knew that the cats and humans would not understand that they believed they had a right to live peacefully. Of course the cats and humans didn’t really know why they didn’t like mice and would not accept them in their realm, they just instinctively knew that it was wrong.

And the mice continued to live in the walls and shadows.

Some reflections

In this parble the cats are the dominant big ideas in life. The ones that have been accepted for many years and remain unchallenged because they are so big and powerful.

Mice are radical, different ideas. How could they challenge the power of the big idea?

Why can’t the cats allow the mice to live in peace? Why do they have to try to extinguish them if they see them?

What would happen if the mice all appeared at once to try to change things?

Could the humans do anything to change the status quo? Would they want to?

What are the big, dominant ideas?

*yes, I know it’s ‘parable’ but as I have created other words on this blog (eg bloggage) I thought I could create another one – parble is a story with a message but which is not as powerful as the ones Jesus told.

news of the world

If you watch, listen to or read the news at the moment it can make for miserable reading. There’s hideous violence committed at individual, community and international levels. There’s devastating poverty that is affecting people, countries and whole regions of the world. There is hideous greed that is making a few rich at the expense of those who can least afford it. Environmental crises are breaking out across the globe with a seeming unwillingness to act from some of those who are most able to make a positive difference, preferring short term economic gain while sticking their fingers in their ears and ignoring the clamour for action. There is blatant racism, sexism and other prejudices that seem to be encouraged or at least not condemned at the highest level.

It’s not likely to lead us to a happy place is it? Even the ‘and finally’ lighthearted items on the news or the plethora of funny cat videos on the internet can’t lift the sense of gloom.

So what can we do?

Have another look at Psalm 23. You probably all know it, or have heard of it. Yes, that’s right: the Shepherd one.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever.

(NIVUK)

Most of us don’t have a lot of experience of shepherds, especially ancient near-Eastern ones, so what can this ancient piece of poetry do for us today?

First of all, recognise that an ancient near-Eastern shepherd was responsible for protecting the whole flock and providing for them. It wasn’t simply a question of leaving them out in a field, the flock would roam the countryside. And they would follow their shepherd who would go ahead of them (not driving them from behind as in the UK), listening for his voice and trusting him because he had provided for them in the past. No sheepdogs were needed because the shepherd was trusted and known. David, who wrote this psalm, had experience of this as he had been a shepherd, and that was one of the ways in which he experienced God – someone he knew, whom he trusted, whom he was willing to follow, whose voice he knew.

Green pastures are always good places if you are a herbivore. It’s easy food and provides the nutrients that are needed. In the ancient near-East green pastures would have been at a premium, bearing in mind that it was/is a hot climate. Much of the land would be dry scrubland with not so much to eat, so if a sheep found theirself led to a green pasture it was bliss , especially if there was also a source of cool water there. If you have been in the hot Mediterranean sun you would be refreshed and feel restored at such places. When we find ourselves in green pastures or beside still, refreshing waters we should not forget to give thanks to the one who has led us there. We should find ways that our soul is restored – what works for you?

The shepherd would know the local terrain and would know which were the paths to follow. Some might be difficult but they would go to the right destination. Here ‘right paths’ doesn’t just mean those that go to the right places, however, it also refers to ‘righteousness’ or ‘faithfulness’ and means that the flock benefits from the shepherd’s faithfulness. ‘For his name’s sake’ means that God acts consistently with his character. There are many names given to God in the Old Testament and all of them reflect something of his character. Even referring to him as ‘The Lord’ as David does at the beginning of the Psalm is bigger than we imagine. The word in Hebrew is YHWH – the Hebrew word for God that was originally unpronounceable because there were no vowels but is now sometimes pronounced ‘Yahweh’. It derives from the Hebrew for ‘I am’ and reminds us of the eternal nature of God, the existence of God, the constancy of God, the self-sufficiency of God and so much more. That’s the One who’s our shepherd!

Following the shepherd does not mean that we’ll always be in green pastures and beside still waters. There are times when we go through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death). We all know that to be true even though we hate to admit it. The difference for those who follow the shepherd is that they know he is with them as they travel through that dark valley. They may be frightened, worried, anxious or even terrified of what is in the shadows, but they know that the shepherd is there with them and is committed to them. You’re not alone if you don’t want to be.

The psalm abruptly changes from a pastoral metaphor to a banquet scene. There’s a celebration, a meal in our honour, and we will be vindicated in the sight of those who have opposed us. The host is generous to us and honours us. Did you notice too how the language changes from an impersonal third person (‘he’) to a personal second person (‘you’). This is not a theoretical expression of faith, it’s a personal relationship with YHWH. God’s care for us is genuine: not just a story of a shepherd but an experience of love, care, honour and justification.

And there’s an eternal dimension to this that can never be taken away from us.

Add to that what Jesus said about being the Good Shepherd and it becomes spectacular!

None of this changes the news. But it may help us look at it differently knowing that YHWH is leading us, with us, for us and we are his eternally.

Be blessed, be a blessing

honouring

Those of you who have read previous bloggages of mine may get the impression that I am not the greatest advocate of our current government’s policies and approach. You may well be correct. I did not greet yesterday’s news that Boris Johnson has been elected as leader of the Conservative Party (and hence going to be the new Prime Minister*) with any sense of joy.

And now I am torn. Because although my political views are at odds with our government there is also a strong mandate in the Bible for Christians to pray for those in government and, so far as there is no conflict with my faith, to remain a good citizen of my country, I can do that. Heaven knows that our country is greatly in need of those prayers!

And I have to accept that, however much I disagree with the current government and however much I am astonished or dismayed at the choice of the new Prime Minister, I am supposed to honour them.

Really.

1 Peter 2:17: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”

This picture is about honour – the paper is ‘on her’. (Yes, I can hear you groaning!)

Honour is difficult. It is often something that we feel should be deserved or earnt. But in the Bible it is (usually relating to God, but also to parents and others) something that is due because of who the person is and the role they fulfil.

So if I am meant to honour the emperor, what does that mean? I think it means that I am to honour the office, the role, and the task. It means that I should be respectful of those who have the incredibly difficult job of leading this fractured country, whether or not I support their policies. It means that I should be praying for them, especially if I disagree with them. And it means I will try not to make derogatory comments on social media, or ‘liking them’ no matter how much I may agree with them or find them amusing. To do so dishonours those who are our leaders.

But let’s be clear about this: praying for and honouring does not mean endorsing. Being a good citizen does not mean acquiescing when I believe that something is wrong. Doing those things does not mean that I support the government. It does not mean that I cannot protest against injustice and campaign for the poor and marginalised. It does not mean I can’t write to my MP about issues that concern me (I am not sure whether I am on his blacklist now after all the letters I have written).

So don’t expect me to keep quiet about what I believe is wrong, but do expect me to be respectful, prayerful and honouring in the process.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Rant warning: please can we remember that Prime Minister is two words. It irritates me no end when it is reduced to Pry-Minister by lazy reporters on the telly. Harrumph.

political paranoia

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This bloggage carries a ‘harumph’ warning. It is fuelled by deep dissatisfaction about the direction of politics in the UK and other countries and a fear that we are bumbling our way to a crisis of global proportions. If you’re not up for that I suggest that you head for the fun and funny stuff section.

You have been warned.

Is it just me or are some politicians getting more extreme in order to gain popular support? In the UK and USA there are politicians who are seeking (or have) the highest office in the land and they are making statements that are designed to attract attention and appear to be on the side of ‘ordinary people’. Or am I being paranoid?

I consider myself to be ‘ordinary’ and I can conclusively say that these ‘populist politicians’ are not on my side when they make comments that fuel racism, stoke the fires of the irrational fear of the foreigner and pander to a right wing agenda. Part of making a nation great again seems to be about denigrating other nations so that a nation feels superior to it. In the USA the President regularly tweets in a critical manner about other people, nations and situations.

Another tactic that I see at work is the ability to make statements that have no basis in fact, or at best are a half-truth. And when that is pointed out the critics are the ones branded as peddling ‘fake news’! Or am I being paranoid?

Truth is the first casualty in this campaign of contradictory communication. In the UK the Referendum on whether to leave the EU had a headline figure that was emblazoned on a big red bus that said, “We give the EU £350million a week let’s fund our NHS instead.” Now it’s arguable that the amount of money that flows to the EU is less than that (some say £100million less each week!), but this ‘fact’ ignores the UK also receives a substantial rebate, it receives agricultural and other subsidies,research grants and it benefits from the free trade environment within the EU. It’s so disingenuous, but once the headline has been released into the wild it gains a notoriety and life of its own that no amount of ‘fact checking’ can remove from the public consciousness.

It was very clever and played to the self-centredness and indignation of those who would vote ‘Leave’, but it was a lie, and has subsequently been criticised as “a clear misuse of official statistics” by the UK Statistics Authority. Boris Johnson, one of the candidates to become our next Prime Minister, was the leading propagator of this lie. In the USA the President denies that climate change is a thing or that it has its roots in human activity – denying the truth of the vast majority of scientific research. His actions in leaving international climate change agreements could condemn the planet to serious damage!

If truth becomes defined by the loudest voice then it ceases to have value and politics has become a pantomime of populist personality propaganda. The politicians that seem to be the most popular are those with the most apparent flaws in character and frequently seem to put their foot in it when they open their mouth. I don’t believe that they are as daft as this appears. It’s portayed as them being a ‘character’ or laughed off, while truth lies trampled and unnoticed in the dirt. Or am I being paranoid?

It seems to me that much of this ‘populist’ politics is led by business and financial interests. The politicians at the head of these movements are wealthy, privileged and are not affected in any way by the impact of their actions. They can cope if markets crash because they have investments in many different places. They don’t need to queue for a foodbank, live without money when their benefits are stopped while an assessment takes place or make a choice about whether to buy food or clothes for their children. Yet their policies condemn more and more people to this existence while they celebrate tax cuts for the rich and get excited about how business will save the world.

These politicians are mostly isolated from the real world – ironically the ‘ordinary’ people from whom they are seeking to win support – and seek to blame someone else (immigrants, the EU, other countries) for the negative impact of their policies on the most vulnerable in their countries. Have we seen this sort of thing in the 20th Century after World War 1 when there was a rise of nationalistic fervour and the nation’s ills were blamed on others that began innocently enough and culminated in the most hideous acts in human history? Or am I being paranoid?

And how does the prevailing economic system make sense? Almost all of the governments in the world have borrowed money in order to carry out their policies. But that has to be paid back doesn’t it? And where will the wealth come from in order to pay it back? Taxation? Maybe, but there’s only so much money available from the taxpayers. So the rest is borrowed to repay the loans. But that has to be paid back doesn’t it? The debts rise inexorably while the ability to repay them diminishes. In the UK over the life of the Conservative Government we have been treated to ‘austerity’ which was designed in order to restore our country’s finances to a place where we lived within our means. Between 2010 and 2019 more than £30 billion in spending reductions have been made to things like welfare payments, housing subsidies, local council budgets, police services and social services. And the impact has been on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society while the wealthy have carried on relatively unaffected. And have nine years of austerity reduced our deficit? Well, the Office for National Statistics tells us that the deficit is decreasing. But the general government gross debt was £1,763.8 billion at the end of the financial year ending March 2018 and it’s still increasing! Am I being paranoid?

Our political system and the reporting of it is such that personality seems to be more important than substance and the media is keener on promoting their own preferences or prejudices in the way that they report the activities and words of their favourite puppets than in proclaiming truth. And people seem to have lost the ability to discern when they are being sold a lie and take on board what they are told in the ‘news’ as being the truth. In May 2019 Nigel Farage made his 33rd appearance on BBC Question Time – more than any other MP even though his party has no MPs! And the public are unwitting accomplices in this as they forget (or choose to ignore) that they have chosen the media outlet that they prefer, which reinforces their own preferences and prejudices, rather than listening to the voice that proclaims that the emperor has no clothes. Or am I being paranoid?

Don’t worry, the harumph is nearly over. You see I believe that there is a different way. Not all politicians are like this. I see many members of parliament (of all parties) whose reason for being MPs is to serve not to self-promote. I see many members of parliament whose voices are raised in protest at the lies. I want to thank them, encourage them, pray for them and (if I lived in their constituency) vote for them. It doesn’t have to be like this.

I am not advocating communism or socialism, certainly not in their current national incarnations that lead to oppressive regimes founded on a flawed atheistic view of life where there is the same inequality between those in power and the poor as there is in capitalist countries. I am advocating a new politics based on love and justice. What if society existed to benefit all, not just the rich, and there was a model in which justice and love were the main motivators for policies. What if we really did what Jesus encouraged and ‘love our neighbour’ and seek the best for everyone else? If everyone did that, what sort of society would we live in? Or am I being idealistic?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Middle-Eastenders

Do you know about the book of Esther in the Bible? It’s peculiar because God is not mentioned by name, but like a toddler who has got hold of a tub of chocolate spread his fingerprints are everywhere. And the book is controversial because it is a narrative about slavery, racism and power in which what has been portrayed as a beauty contest is held to find a tyrant King a new wife and Esther, a young Jewish woman who was in Persia against her will, was selected. Was it a beauty contest when Esther didn’t have any choice, or was it something far more sinister?

Themain plot in the narrative is that the Prime Minister, Haman, decides to carry out what a genocide against the Jews who were in exile in Persia and Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, hears of the plot and persuades Esther to intervene with the King. It’s a bit like a soap opera as there is intrigue, suspense and feuding.

Image result for Xerxes I

Last week I was asked to preach on Esther 5, which is one of the key chapters in the narrative where Esther makes the first approach to the King. I called it ‘Middle-Eastenders’ as there are certainly some ‘duff-duff-duff’ drum moments! I’d encourage you to read the whole book so you get the context (it’s not very long). Here are some of my reflections:

Esther was gentle: she was not seeking status but was looking to see how she could be used where she was. We can even say that she was close to God because she fasted for 3 days before going to see the king.  

She was wise – recognising that if she jumped right in with a complaint against the Prime Minister when she was in a vulnerable position (not even sure if the King would want to see her) then she may not succeed in saving her people. She offered to serve the king (inviting him and Haman to a banquet) rather than demanding her rights.

And she was patient. It would have been very tempting to her when the king offered to be generous to her to jump right in with her main request, but she knew that the time was not right and just asked for him to attend another banquet.

I wonder who the people are who hold power over you? Of course, there are politicians who can make decisions that will affect our life, but there are also officials whose decisions affect us, perhaps when we are seeking benefits. We are subject to the authority of the police and law-enforcement agencies. And what about those who are above us at work? Or even those to whom we have given authority in our homes like a landlord?

And there is also power in a church. In Baptist churches, because we say that everyone is a minister, sometimes people seem to have made a virtue out of disrespecting and tearing down those whom God has appointed to lead us.

Esther’s example is not a blueprint, but I think we can learn that deference and respect, patience and wisdom are important and can bear fruit.

On the other hand, Haman saw power as something to be used to benefit himself: we can see from this passage that he was self-centred, focused on his own wealth and importance. He was indignant towards Mordecai when he was not given the honour that he felt he deserved. He didn’t realise that honour is not something to be demanded – that is bullying and fear – it is something you earn.

He was willing to misuse his power for his own ends. His decision to impale Mordecai on a big spike (some versions say it was gallows, but that’s not quite right) was his way of trying to make himself feel better. He did not value others, he just wanted people to look up to him. I wonder about his petulant response to Mordecai, it’s almost the actions of a playground bully. Mordecai’s non-reaction to him made him feel small so he decided to act big to make up for it.

How important is it how other people regard us? How far are we willing to go to obtain the respect? Are there lines we won’t cross, or does anything go in our desire for power? Do we ever look for a leadership role to elevate our status rather than lead by serving?

And at the risk of getting all political, consider when you look at the current candidates for PM role are they more like Esther or Haman?

four little letters, one big headache

There are four letters that may have caused more groans and rolled eyeballs over the past couple of years than any other. No, not IMHO or ROFL or even KISS*. It’s GDPR. How do you feel every time you see those four innocent little letters grouped together on an agenda?

The General Data Protection Regulation implementation has haunted us as we have struggled to make ourselves compliant. We may have had what feels like endless meetings to make sure we know what we can keep, what we can’t, who we tell about what we are keeping and what to do about the information we can’t keep. Many churches have had to introduce a new role of GDPR Compliance Officer (or something similar) – the sort of post that appeals to a unique brand of people who love rules and regulations and working out how to apply them in minute detail.

Eastern Baptist Association is also seeking to be compliant (under the watchful eye of our Secretary) and last week we got around to the filing cabinets I inherited from my predecessor. She had an amazingly detailed filing system. She had even filed all of the route printouts from Google Maps (pre-dating sat navs) in case she needed to do those routes again! When I started four and a half years ago we thinned down the amount of paperwork from two filing cabinets to one, but GDPR made us look again at what had been retained. And the contents of the remaining four filing cabinet drawers were ruthlessly thinned out to fill less than half of one drawer! My office floor was hidden underneath the mound of papers and earliuer this week some nice men from a local confidential shredding service came and collected it all.

I have to be honest to having mixed feelings about it. Not a sense of nostalgia for the paperwork – I have hardly referred to any of it in the time I have been a Regional Minister – but there is a sense that something of history may be lost in the compliance with these regulations. At the same time I also felt a great sense of relief that the job had been done, and I am now wondering what to do with all of the empty drawers…

And this got me thinking about applying GDPR to my life. No, not deleting memories and informing people what I know about them. I am thinking about how God’s Disciple Put Right (yes, it is a bit contrived but bear with me). We all accumulate habits, thoughts, ideas and bias during our life – much of it unconsciously. And while we will deal directly with those things that are obviously sinful there are others that build up almost unnoticed, like paperwork in a filing cabinet and we never question them. They can sit there, unnoticed for many years but they are not good to hold onto.

To comply with GDPR we have to ask ourselves questions about the information such as: do we need to have it; are we allowed to have it; and how are we storing it? In the same way I think it is helpful for us to consider questions about ourselves such as: is this attitude helpful; does this habit bless me; how are my actions affecting others…? It’s not always easy to ask ourselves these things so it’s good to make ourselves accountable to someone else to whom we give permission to ask the awkward questions. In my role as a Regional Minister I have both a Spiritual Director and a Professional Supervisor as well as really good colleagues and an amazing wife. I have given all of them permission to ask me awkward questions, challenge me if necessary and help me be more like the follower of Jesus he wants me to be. And most of all God’s Spirit in us helps with the process in the way he resonates with our spirit, prompts others to speak into our lives and helps us to consider how we are doing. Who can help you and the Spirit with your GDPR?

when coffee forces you to make an urgent decision

Yesterday I managed finally to perform a classic of modern living. I have not really been able to perform it fully until now. I have occasionally managed a smidgeon of the act but have somehow always managed to catch myself and pull back from the brink. Yesterday I indulged fully.

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covfefe spillage

I spilt a mug of coffee on my computer keyboard. It’s not the one that’s on the laptop but a lovely wireless one that is full-sized and sits on my desk to enable me to work more ergonomically. I had just made myself a lovely cup of coffee and placed it on my desk near the keyboard and then was distracted by something on my right. I turned to deal with it and as I turned back to the keyboard and screen caught the mug full on with my left elbow. Cue the deluge.

I called for help and my wife came running, armed with cloths to mop up. We did a fair job of limiting the flow of the coffee to the keyboard and its immediate vicinity. Thankfully nothing else was baptised by the coffee and after the diligent application of tea towels, paper towels and other drying implements I thought I had salvaged the keyboard too. It seemed to work okay.

But within a few minutes it started becoming unresponsive in different areas. Some of the keys stubbornly refused to tell the computer that they were being pressed. Others decided to disguise themselves by telling the computer than another key altogether was being pressed. And slowly it dawned on me that the keyboard was dead.

The problem is that I use the keyboard all the time when I am at my desk so from the moment when I admitted defeat and allowed the old keyboard a dignified end I realised that there was an urgency for a replacement. I know that there are some online companies that promise next day delivery and I am subscribed to the South American river service. But in order to qualify I needed to order within a short space of time.

So began the hurried yet diligent search for a replacement. I did not want to make a hasty decision I would regret, but I did want it to arrive today so could not afford to take too much time over the decision. I narrowed down the search by focusing on the keyboards that had the highest rating by purchasers and limiting the price range (you can get some REALLY expensive keyboards!). In the end I chose a keyboard that seemed to tick all of the boxes for my needs, and which was reasonably priced. It wasn’t a premium brand, but came very well recommended.

And it arrived today. I am using it now. And it feels good to type on. It does have ‘light up’ keys that change colour all the time but given that most of the time I don’t look at the keyrfohgs keyboard when I type (ooh, get me!) it doesn’t bother me, and there is the facility to turn that off if I want. It is connected to my computer via a usb cable rather than being wireless, but that’s not a problem (and means that the money goes on the keyboard quality not the bluetooth / wireless link).

So why am I telling you this boring tale, other then as an exercise to test the keyboard? (it’s more productive than typing ‘hello’ into my wordprocessor) Well, it’s the whole thing about having to make urgent and important decisions. When we can take our time, pray (even people without faith sometimes do that), consult other people and listen to their advice, weigh up the options and come to a wise conclusion then decision-making can be a blessing. Of course, if it’s a corporate decision in a church, a business or another organisation there is also a need to ensure that the ‘stakeholders’ are involved in the process of consultation, praying, listening, weighing-up and wise-concluding, which also takes time.

But there are times when we have to make an important decision quickly. I was with a church leadership team recently where this had been the case and they were reviewing what had happened and why some people had struggled with the process (but not the outcome). I suggested a couple of principles that may help:

First, break it down into bite-sized chunks. If there is important information to be communicated then make sure that it’s shared in a way that everyone can understand. For example, if a decision has to be made about buying something expensive but urgently needed explain – why there is a need, why it’s urgent, the options that have been explored, and the potential cost. If you present it all as one item you will lose people (or yourself) along the way. I needed a keyboard and set some parameters around the purchase to help me decide what to get (cost, rating, not bothered about brand).

Second, make the decision as small as possible and allow time for the rest to be decided later. For example, your car may need some work to get through the MOT (a car roadworthiness test) today and the garage may also suggest other work that could be done which is not urgent. If you’re unsure, get them to do the minimum work needed to get through the MOT and say that you’ll have a think about the rest. You don’t need to get all of the work done urgently so if you isolate what is urgent and focus on that you may well find that it makes the decision easier. For me the question was simple – I needed to get a keyboard that would be delivered today.

And finally realise that there are very few decisions that will be catastrophic if you get them wrong. Of course we want to make wise, sensible and correct decisions but most of them can be rectified. The process of putting it right may not be easy and may cost a bit more in time, effort and money, but there are not many issues that cannot be resolved. I may regret buying this particular keyboard and may have to buy another one, but for the time being it works, it does what I want (and it has pretty lights).

Be blessed, be a blessing