Framed

About 9 years ago I went on a retreat as part of Sabbatical Leave and one of the things that made a significant impact on me was a picture that was in the chapel at the retreat centre. It was a print of a painting by Sieger Köder who was a Catholic priest and artist. The painting depicts Peter refusing to allow Jesus to wash his feet, which you can read about here.

I was captivated by the picture and spent a long time looking at it, allowing God to speak to me through it. I was so captivated that when I got home I found out where I could get a poster of the painting and ordered one. Since then it has occasionally come out, but has spent most of its life rolled up in the tube in which it was delivered.

Now that I have wall space in my office at the new church I am serving I decided that the time has come for me to get the picture framed properly. We took it to a local framer and they showed how it would look with different surrounds. In the end we chose a black surround and frame as it seems to offset the colours in the painting beautifully. What do you think?

The purpose of a picture frame is to enhance the picture in it. If the frame becomes the object of attention it has failed in its purpose. And in that one concept is so much about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We are called to complement the teaching of Jesus. We are meant to enhance people’s experience of him, not get people to focus on us.

If you look at the picture above you will see that there is a reflection of my study in the glass of the frame. Our surroundings are actually part of the picture. When we come into a church service we don’t leave our problems or experiences of the week at the door, we bring them with us as part of our encounter with God’s Spirit in worship – they form part of the picture.

Be blessed, be a blessing

glimpses of God

Warning. This bloggage contains images of natural beauty that has the potential to make you jealous.

As you will know if you have followed this blog that we have moved down to Plymouth in Devon, where I am now serving as the Minister of Mutley Baptist Church. The church are being so lovely and welcoming and have sent us lots of ideas of places to go and explore in the area. Now that the boxes are unpacked and most things have found their new place in the manse we decided that last Saturday we would do a little local exploring.

We went about 10 minutes away, to Plym Bridge which, as the name suggests, is a bridge over the river Plym – whose ‘mouth’ gives our city its name. We got out of the car and walked a few metres to the bridge. And we stopped.

It was almost overwhelming. A combination of appreciation of the beauty of the spot, the proximity to where we’re living, and the fact that God has called us to live in such a place led to us just stopping. There may have been some tears. I certainly uttered a quick ‘thank you’ prayer.

These photos give you an idea of our wonderful experience. We walked a couple of miles alongside the river (up one side and back down the other) and basked in the tranquility, enjoyed the calming effect of the burbling river bouncing off the stones and rocks on its way to the sea, nodded to and greeted other walkers, listened to peregrine falcons, and chatted. As they say around here… bootiful. Proper job.

I am originally from Devon so this is something of a return to my homeland for me, but Sally has only lived here for a year (when we first got married) yet she regards Devon as one of her ‘happy places’. Saturday just confirmed all of that too.

And in the midst of all of that I had an encounter with God. Not a loud booming voice or a brilliant white light. Not even with any discernible message. Just an awareness that God was close. Enjoying his creation brings us closer to the Creator. And I reckon he enjoys it too. After all, doesn’t Genesis 1 echo with God’s reflection that ‘it was good’, and finish with him pausing to look at everything and declare it ‘very good’?

It’s relatively easy to do that when we are walking in the Devon countryside, but what about those who live surrounded by bricks and concrete? We can still see glimpses of God in the way that grass gently and persistently breaks through concrete and tarmac; in the birds and even the urban wildlife.

But most of all we get glimpses of God in other people. The Bible tells us we’re made in God’s image – not that we physically look like him, but we bear the maker’s marks and we can see him in each person we meet. In the person who held the door open for you when you had your hands full. In the person who caught your eye and you saw each other over your facemasks. In the person who made you a cup of coffee. In the destitute person asking if you have any spare change. Even (and sometimes especially) in the person we least like or admire. If we look for him he’s everywhere.

So are we looking? And if people look at us, what glimpses of God will they see?

Be blessed, be a blessing

pondering

I’ve been pondering for a couple of weeks now.

What have I been pondering? I’ve been pondering what “Football’s coming home” actually means (from the iconic England anthem Three Lions written for the Euro 96 tournament by Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds). I know the sentiment that it is invoking, but it actually doesn’t make any sense.

“Of course it doesn’t,” I hear you retort, “it’s poetic.” Yes, I accept that. But the message of the song seems to be that football has been away from home for a long time and now it’s coming back. Does that mean that in all that time football matches played in parks with jumpers for goalposts, in non-league grounds, in League grounds and in big Premiership stadia weren’t properly football?

Yes, I am being petty and pedantic. But it’s my blog, so I reserve the right to be petty and pedantic when it suits me. But thinking about Three Lions got me pondering the use of other songs in sport. Why do we play national anthems before some sporting occasions, and not before others? There were no national anthems at Wimbledon, for example.

And why do England Rugby Union fans sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – a song with its roots in slavery (if ever there is a country that should not adopt such a song it’s England with its historical involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade)? I read on the BBc website that it started when England Player Martin Offiah scored (he was nicknamed ‘Chariots Offiah’) but does its current use promote cultural awareness and diversity or is it inappropriate?

And then there’s the use of Abide With Me at Wembley, sung especially before the FA Cup Final. It was written in 1847 by Devon vicar Henry Lyte, and was first sung at the 1927 FA Cup Final. Apparently it was chosen because King George V had been asked what he would like sung and this was Queen Mary’s favourite hymn. It has been sung ever since. But what has a hymn about God’s presence with us in the darkest of circumstances have to do with a game of football?

I suspect that in most cases the singing is less to do with the lyrical content and more to do with the communal event, the camaraderie of corporate singing, tradition, and the fact that they all have good, memorable tunes.

On Saturday I was Inducted at the church I am now serving in Plymouth and because of the Covid-19 restrictions we were unable to sing together (which I found ironic bearing in mind how loudly 90,000 fans sang Three Lions together in Wembley Stadium the following evening). At the end we used a video of a song that has been written to the tune of Abide With Me. It feels like a manifesto for our church. Have a listen / watch. It’s excellent. It’s a song I can wholeheartedly get behind and look forward to being able to sing with gusto very soon with the rest of the church I serve. Then we seek God’s help to put the words into action!

Be blessed, be a blessing

stress testing

We have a chair at home from a well-known Swedish furniture store. It is pictured below and you’ll notice that it doesn’t have four legs. Instead it is made of shaped, laminated wood that is both strong and flexible. Indeed, to demonstrate its strength and flexibility the stores had an example in a Perspex box with a machine pushing down on it and then releasing, with a counter showing how many hundreds of thousands of times this had happened without the chair breaking. It was a public demonstration of stress testing.

The chair looks well designed and well built. It looks strong. It looks comfortable (at least I think it does). But the only way you will truly know how well it is built and how strong the wood is is by sitting in the chair. We recently had a visitor who was a little reluctant to sit in the chair and I suspect it’s because they were unsure how well it would hold them (or perhaps because I mischievously suggested that if they sat down too hard they would be twanged back out of it). To test the quality of the chair you have to put it under stress. Only then will you find out its strengths and any weaknesses or flaws.

And I think the same is true of humans. On the surface all may seem lovely and good. All may appear ‘normal’. But under stress we reveal our strengths, our qualities and our faults and weaknesses.

I think I have seen this in the responses that I have seen and heard to England’s men’s football team being beaten on penalties in the finals of Euro 2020 (delayed by Covid). I was disappointed that England did not win, but I do not feel there was any need to apportion blame and single people out. One commentator on the TV made a disparaging comment about the relative youth of some of those who took the penalties. Why? There is a minority of people who have made hideous racist comments about those who did not score their penalties. Did they suddenly become racist, or did the stress reveal this abominable fault in their character? Listening to the radio news this morning I was appalled to hear of the online racist abuse aimed at the players who did not score. But then I heard the announcer telling us the names of the players who had missed – apportioning blame and highlighting them over the rest of the team in a form of scapegoating. That was a deliberate choice to name those players – isn’t that also a form of attack? These attacks reveal far more about those who perpetrate them than anything else. While the attacks are heinous, and I pray for the protection from these attacks for those who have been highlighted, what they really do is reveal the character of those who have made these attacks, looking for someone else to blame.

Now, despite what Bill Shankly once said, life and death is much more important than football. And rather than highlighting the failings of others I find I need to look at myself first and see what flaws and weaknesses in me are revealed when I am under stress. I know that I get grumpy when I am tired. I know that I can lack patience when I am under significant pressure. I know that I can look for people to blame when things go wrong (and forget to analyse my own contribution first). Those are just a few of my weaknesses and flaws.

But I am not content with them. I don’t like them. And as a follower of Jesus I have alternatives – not self-help or therapy (which have their place) but spiritual transformation that God’s Spirit brings about in us. He bears fruit in us that is far more attractive than our flaws. We looked at this fruit in our church recently and recognised that all of them overlap with each other, but in a beautiful Venn Diagram all intersect in love. Love that we see revealed most perfectly in Jesus and is glimpsed in 1 Corinthians 13.

We can’t make these things grow on our own, but with God’s Spirit’s help he will grow them in us. I pray that all of us will experience that growth, and as the fruit grows that it will displace and replace our flaws, failings and weaknesses. And the incredible thing is that if each of us tends to our own fruitfulness the collective fruitfulness of our churches and communities will be transformed – one life at a time.

Be blessed, be a blessing

looking forward to emails

The church I have been called to serve is blessing us in abundance. Lots of people have spoken to us and made us feel really welcome; the teams I have joined are people of faith and joy; and I am getting lots of emails.

Any of you who are ministers will wonder what’s so amazing about getting lots of emails. Well, someone in the church had the idea of getting a different person to send us a welcoming email each day. Some include a verse from the Bible to encourage us, most include places that the senders love visiting in the area, and all of them are a delight to receive. It looks like these emails could continue for several months!

So each day I look forward to opening my emails, wondering who will have sent something and what it will contain.

And that got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone had the same experience as us? What if each day we each send someone in our contacts list, social media friends or phone an email, message or text with a word of encouragement? What difference might that make? How much joy would be spread?

Many times I have experienced a prompting to send a message, make a phone call or even visit someone that has turned out to be exactly what that person needed. It’s not because I have any special ability, I put it down to God’s Spirit giving me a nudge.

So, from tomorrow, I am going to see if I can put my closing sentence into practice in this way and send a daily message of encouragement to someone – I am being blessed, so I can be a blessing. Who knows, you might be the recipient one day!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

d’oh (twice)

As part of moving into a new house we have discovered that some of the extension leads we had were not suitable. Electricity sockets are in different places in the new rooms so the cables needed to be longer. I decided that what would be helpful would be some 5m long cables so that they could run almost unobtrusively behind furniture and the sockets would then be where we needed them to be.

So I went online and searched for ‘5m extension cable’. Loads of options came up, so I decided to go for a couple that looked quite fancy and even had USB sockets too. I placed the order and waited for their arrival, feeling pleased with my choice… until they arrived. They were only 1.5m long. I had not checked carefully enough and had ordered the wrong length.

1594 1M - 4 Gang Extension Lead, 1m
How much cable is between the plug and the sockets?

In actual fact, they are both useful in different locations than the ones I had in mind, so it was not wasted money. Undaunted, I searched again for ‘5m extension cable’. And this time I was cautious. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again, that would be daft. I saw another one that I thought would do the job well and placed the order. I waited for its arrival, feeling pleased with my choice… until it arrived. It was only 1.5m long. I had done it again!!

I couldn’t believe it. Neither could Sally (well, actually she could believe I would be daft enough to make the same mistake twice). I couldn’t understand how, when I searched for ‘5m extension cable’ I kept ordering 1.5m cables. And then I realised. A search for ‘5m’ would also reveal ‘1.5m’ cables. My use of the search engine was not specific enough.

That one got sent back. I was just glad that it was online rather than in person as I would have felt really embarrassed having to face the shopkeeper three times, apparently buying what I needed and each time getting it wrong.

How often are we caught out by not being clear enough? Having a vague idea of where we are going usually involves aimless driving around until we are willing to stop and ask for directions. And ambiguity in what we say (spoken or written) can cause unnecessary hurt and angst in relationships.

Precision can be really important in life as well as ordering extension leads.

Be blessed, be a blessing

(I have ordered another extension lead, but beat the system by ordering one that is 3m long… unless someone is selling 1.3m leads!)

a screw loose?

So we managed to survive the transfer of the Essex box fort to become the Devon box fort! The removal men were really good and it was surprisingly swift. I would say that it was at the lower end of possible stress levels for a move, although we’re both really tired now.

Most rooms still have residual boxes in them, and please don’t look in the garage, but we have managed to find most of the important things (eventually). I took apart my desk before the move and put the eight screws in a safe place. I put almost all the important screws in a compartment in my tool box. But of course, for reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t put the desk screws in that compartment. I have unpacked all of the likely boxes, all of the unlikely but still possible ones, and looked in all the drawers in my study units.

Nope.

In the garage in our new manse there are some jars of screws, bolts, nuts, washers, nails and other useful bits and pieces hanging by their lids that are screwed into a shelf above (see below). These were left by the previous occupants, but have the look of something that has been a fixture here for many years. I had a rummage in the relevant jar and managed to find four that fitted so that I could reattach the keyboard shelf. However there was nothing to match the other four. Some were the right width and thread, but too long. Others were the right length but the wrong thread. In the end a visit to the local DIY superstore enabled me to find some that were just right. (Is it just me or does this sound a bit like a DIY version of Goldilocks and the 3 bears!)

So, in the end the desk is not complete, most books are on the shelves and my workspace is usable.

Why am I telling you this innocuous story? Well, little things can make a big difference. Compared to the rest of the desk eight screws don’t really look much. But without them the desk was not as useful as it now is. You may not think you are significant, but you matter. You are useful.

In the New Testament there’s a tiny little letter that Paul wrote to a friend of his called Phil (okay, Philemon, but give me credit for trying to be contemporary). Phil had a slave (different times) called Onesie (Onesimus) who ran away. You can’t blame Onesie for seeking his freedom. But he bumped into Paul, who suggested that he should go back to Phil’s house, and he wrote him a letter to take back and explain that there were new circumstances (Onesie had become a follower of Jesus).

It seems that Onesie had not been a particularly good slave. But Paul wrote in the letter, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Onesie’s full name actually means ‘useful’ (ironically).

And that’s the point I am trying to make. Onesie was regarded as useless, but Paul saw his potential and how he could live up to his name.

Be blessed, be a blessing

A moving experience

We’re in the middle of moving house. Our home in Essex is rapidly resembling a complex box fort and the church I am now serving (Mutley Baptist Church) is about to assume ownership of the house we will occupy once our box fort is transferred to Devon.

pic by Svilen Milev

It’s a period of time that carries lots of emotion with it. Change almost always does because we are emotional beings and form attachments to things, places, people, times, experiences and much more beyond. When change happens, some of those will remain the same, but others will be different. Our love for family and friends does not change, but geography will make the relationships different.

In the hymn ‘Abide with me’ (sung each year at the FA Cup Final) there’s a line: “Change and decay in all around I see: O Thou who changest not abide with me.” I want to take issue with the association of change and decay, because although change may not be easy, it is not always bad. ‘Entropy’ is not inevitable. Even in the midst of sadness, loss and loneliness we can find positives: we experience those emotions because we are / were loved; no longer being in a particular place may leave us with a lump in our throat because of the memories we associate with that place, but there will be opportunities to create new wonderful memories in the new place. You see what I am saying, I hope. If we look for them there are positives, even in the most difficult of change.

And that brings me to the second part of that line from ‘Abide with me’. God’s constancy is a comfort in a changing world. And he’s not distant from us, he ‘abides’ with us if we ask him to. That’s an intimate relationship, dwelling in the same space, feeling the same feelings, hoping the same hopes…

Be blessed, be a blessing

another fresh start

So, looking back, it seems there have been several significant gaps in the timeline on this blog. These are times when for health, busyness or neglectful reasons I haven’t been composing bloggages. And the next bloggage after those gaps usually begins with an apology for the length of that gap and an expressed intention to do better.

So… sorry. I’ll try again.

I have just started as a local church minister again, in bootiful Devon. I am from Devon originally so it’s lovely to be back. IMHO it’s no coincidence that Devon is the only UK county that rhymes with ‘heaven’. It always lifts my spirits as I am driving down the motorway and see this roadsign:

Southbound M5, Devon © David Dixon cc-by-sa/2.0 :: Geograph Britain and  Ireland

I’m currently ‘between houses’ as the house moving plans have had to slide several times while the start date remained the same. So I am being blessed by the generosity of two couples in the church – one that have a flat I can use for a week, and the second who foolishly have said I can stay with them for the rest of the time until the moment when my wife and our house contents join me.

I hear sometimes Christians express a similar ‘between homes’ state, which is perhaps expressed most obviously in the Jim Reeves song, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” I know that the sentiment of the song is that there’s more beyond this life, but the problem with the attitude that this is transitory is that we don’t need to care about the planet (which actually goes against the reason why God created people in the Bible, to care for the place). And we don’t really need to bother living a full life now because the next one is going to be so much better (which goes against Jesus saying that he has come to give life in all its fullness).

I am really longing for the moment when Sally and I are reunited and can make our home here. But I am also planning to make the most of the time in between. It’s a beautiful day today and I think I will go for a walk down by the sea later on.

Be blessed, be a blessing

unexpected

These words from Isaiah 9 seem to be coming at me from all directions at the moment, more than I have noticed before in Advent:

2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (NIVUK)

(Here’s a video of a reading of this passage created by my colleague Graeme)

There are some incredible promises of hope here, aren’t there? A promise of a dazzling light in a time of darkness; renewed national growth and joy; victory over neighbouring countries; freedom from oppression; and of an end to violence and war. These are promises that an oppressed and vulnerable nation would readily embrace.

But the means by which God will achieve those hoped for promises is, unexpectedly, a child. It is very easy to skip past that to the grown-up Jesus because we know he is the Son and we want to celebrate and embrace his rule, the astonishing names that describe who he is, the eternal nature of his Kingdom and the new priorities of his Kingdom.

But stop for a moment and reflect again that God was going to provide a child as his way of doing things:

Helpless.

Vulnerable.

Fragile.

Dependent.

God in a swaddling nappy.

All that Jesus would achieve in his life, death and resurrection began with him as a child. God’s work sometimes has its origins in the unexpected and unlikely. Might we see him this year:

In the helplessness we feel as we live under Covid-19 Tier restrictions?

In the most vulnerable people who appreciate a little far more than we who have a lot appreciate abundance?

In recognising the fragility of what we used to consider ‘normal’ and now realise is transient?

In the newly-realised dependence on those whose work is usually unnoticed?

In the attitude of child who eagerly and gratefully receives a Christmas present as an example of how Jesus wants us to receive the Kingdom?

Be blessed, be a blessing