pedal power

Isn’t it interesting how some childhood memories stick vividly in our memories and others are lost in the mists of time? I can vividly remember the day when I learnt to ride a bike. I had a small purple bike that had training wheels and I was quite content whizzing around on it our drive. I had no ambition to have the training wheels removed. But on this particular Sunday afternoon we were going for a family walk and my Dad took the training wheels off the bike, telling me that I was going to learn to ride my bike without them. We started off on the walk with me pedalling along and my Dad holding the back of the saddle. After a little while he would let go and I would unwittingly be riding the bike on my own. However, I kept turning around to see if he was holding me and when I did that invariably I wobbled to a halt and fell off. Eventually I learnt that to ride successfully I had to keep moving forwards and focus on what was ahead of me rather than what was behind.

DV IMAGE

In Hebrews 12:1-2 we read: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

If you’ll forgive me I would like to offer a paraphrase: “Heaven is cheering you on, so stop looking behind you and being distracted by things that make you fall off. Keep pedalling – keeping your eyes focused on Jesus ahead of you because when you do you’ll zoom along!”

What’s distracting you? Are you looking behind? Are you focused on Jesus?

angry

There’s some good advice: “Don’t drive angry.” Putting yourself in charge of a ton or so of metal that can reach speeds of 70 mph (or more if you break speed limits) while your emotions are in a high state of agitation and adrenaline is coursing through your veins is not wise.

But I want to suggest that there are some other things that you can do while you are angry.

Breaking up cardboard boxes (can be cathartic)

Going for a walk (uses up the adrenaline in a healthy way)

Singing (so long as nobody else is around, it may not be the most tuneful)

Praying.

Yes, praying. God is pleased to receive and respond to any prayers, even the angry ones. We can be completely honest with him (no point in doing otherwise really as he already knows all about us) and let him know why we are angry. It is something that I have done this week in the face of what happened to George Floyd and the responses to the peaceful protests that have followed his death at the hands (or knee) of a police officer.

This week I have been asked to contribute a prayer to Premier Radio’s Prayers of Hope programme and I decided to pray angry (albeit that the tone of the recording is more measured). This is my prayer.

I only had about 90 seconds for the prayer, so it’s shorter than I would like. Feel free to add your own ‘amen*’ (*I agree) if you find it helpful:

Heavenly Father – we bow the knee before you in worship and humility because you are God Almighty. And we bow the knee in prayerful solidarity with all who experience oppression and prejudice.

You create all people as equal, and you love all of us on this planet with an unfailing and limitless love so it must break your heart, as it breaks ours, when people are mistreated, abused, attacked and killed because of the colour of their skin or ethnicity.

We lament for George Floyd. His death is a terrible act. Yet it also represents the oppression of so many and our cry of lament merges with the shouts of people across the world against this evil.

Like Martin Luther King we have a dream that a world without racism is possible and we lament that 57 years later that dream has still not come true.

Holy Spirit shine your light of truth and love into the lives of those who hold racist views…

into governments and institutions…

into the public consciousness…

into your churches…

Shine your light of truth and love into our hearts…

…that we may recognise and root out prejudice and become a part of making that dream a reality. We pray that you will help us to see the positive steps we can take to combat racism and to affirm the dignity and humanity of every single person on this planet.

Amen?

Be blessed, be a blessing

I’ve been busy(ish)

Cartoon by Mark Shortland

Hi, it’s been a very long time since my last bloggage. I haven’t gone down with Coronavirus (and you couldn’t catch it from here anyway). But I have been very busy with work and in my spare time I have been creating some silly magic videos with my magic assistant (or am I his?) – Stew the Rabbit. If you are interested you can see the videos on our YouTube Channel: StewTube Magic

I have a few things that I will try to share of a more usual nature here soon, but in the meantime stay safe, stay well, be blessed and be a blessing

the new normal

Man in Bathrobe
This face-mask won’t protect you from Covid-19!

It’s weird/frustrating/ isn’t it, this Covid-19 lockdown situation? Life as we knew it has been put on hold and the canned music playing in the background of self-isolation, furlough and limited journeys outside our homes is becoming so familiar to us that we are almost unaware of it. The ‘new normal’ is becoming normal, at least temporarily. We are acutely aware of what we have lost during this time, and I am not wishing to ignore that or diminish how tough some people are finding this, but are we also recognising what we have gained? Here are a few things for which I am immensely grateful.

Our family is joining in the 8pm applause outside our house on a Thursday evening to express our collective national appreciation of the NHS workers and many others who are enabling us to survive this time. It’s evolving so that it’s not just hands clapping – there are pots and pans being hit by wooden spoons, car horns tooting and even music being played at high volume for everyone to join in with. When this is over, I feel that we must not lose that appreciation of those who, until now, have been unsung heroes.

In the UK we have all been inspired by Captain Tom Moore – a 99 year-old who walked 100 laps of his garden with his walking frame with the intention initially of raising £1,000 to support NHS workers. His determination and spirit captured our imagination and at the time of writing people have donated over £28million! It’s partly because of his self-effacing, unassuming attitude, partly because of his age (he wanted to do it before his 100th birthday) and partly again because we have realised how much we depend on and love the NHS. Let’s not forget that!

Community Spirit has blossomed to fill some of the emptiness in our streets. Many WhatsApp groups have begun in neighbourhoods, people are talking with one another (virtually or at least 2 metres apart) and saying hello in ways that they had not done before. We have got to know people from our street that we wouldn’t have recognised beforehand if we bumped into them, and we now have a weekly street ‘virtual pub quiz’, and Sally (my wife) arranged an Easter Egg hunt that was so well received that people asked us to do it again next year. Can we afford to lose this when the lockdown ends?

The country has moved online. Most days bring with them some new funny video that someone has created and shared online relating to the lockdown. It seems like half the country is joining in with online workouts and learning new cookery skills and other things from live videos. Many people have learnt how to communicate by video with friends and relatives who are distant from them. Churches have rapidly embraced the opportunity to live stream or record and share their services and other meetings which has enabled some people who could not physically attend to feel more connected. I have even started a YouTube channel with my magic rabbit called ‘StewTube Magic’ (you can see it here). (I had the funny experience this week of putting a video online and phoning one of my Ministers to see how he was only to find that he and his son had literally just started watching the StewTube Magic video!) How will this newly-acquired tech-savvy-ness change life after the lockdown? Can we incorporate it into our new new normal to ensure that we stay better connected than ever? And how can we ensure that those who can’t be part of the online experience remain connected too?

It feels that there is a growing appreciation of what’s important and what’s not. We realise that stuff matters less than people. Money matters less than relationships. For those who are forced to spend more time with those who live in the same house as them there may be increased tensions caused by living on top of one another, but can we also see the value of being with those we love in ways that we could never have imagined or engineered? When we emerge from the lockdown how can we make sure that we don’t lose this realisation and give in to the temptation to return to being consumers of stuff rather than creators of love?

The environmental impact of this freeze on so much polluting activity is incredible. I have seen pictures of cities that previously were blighted by smog now having clear skies, of rivers that were brown now being clear, of wildlife reclaiming our streets and it seems as if nature is flourishing in this time when human beings are shut in our homes. So dare we go back to the self-centred pollution-generating lifestyles of the past? Can we use this as a ‘reset’ moment that not only enables the planet to recover temporarily but enables us to hit the long-term environmental goals much quicker?

And in all of this, I want to ask: “Where can we take the gratitude?” We rightly applaud those whose work we now recognise as vital. We rightly enjoy connecting and communicating with people we had lost touch with or never known. We are grateful for a fresh appreciation of what matters most. We are grateful (and I suspect the planet is breathing a sigh of relief) that the environmental impact of this is so positive. But I suspect that without a belief in God you have limited places to take this attitude of gratitude. You see all of the things I have listed above are things that God, through the Bible, has been urging us to do since the words were written down. They are things that he has written on our hearts as important but which we have ignored or forgotten in the everyday busyness and business of what used to be normal. Perhaps in addition to the above you might also be grateful to him that these things are happening and that he is using this unprecedented time (yes, I finally used the ‘u’ word) to remind us of them – and perhaps see them as pointers towards him.

Be blessed, be a blessing

how’re you doin’?

(in a non-Joey from Friends way!!)

How have you been coping with the lockdown? Some people who prefer their own company may have been flourishing while others who are energised by the company of others may be in despair. ‘Huggers’ may be reduced to hugging pillows and cushions soon. Children may well be climbing the walls (or their parents will) as their normal activities are curtailed, although they may be delighted at being told to go and play computer games when their frazzled parents have had enough.

I have not found it too difficult (yet). I can manage to do some of my job from home (online or on the phone) and I am comfortable enough with technology that I can keep in touch with the wider family by video. Meetings have either been cancelled or turned into virtual meetings – and we have to learn new meeting skills for those occasions.

That’s one of the positives I think we may be able to draw from this – at the end I suspect that a far higher proportion of the population will be more tech savvy than when it started.

Another seems to be a rediscovering of the importance of local community. A WhatsApp group has been created for our road and a neighbouring road and alongside being introduced to people we have either ignored or nodded towards in the past we are interacting and supporting one another. Sally, my wife, has even initiated an Easter Egg hunt (pictures and creations in windows and around the street) for when children take their exercise with the family, and we’re hoping that a delivery of chocolate eggs will arrive in time so we can reward participants.

In addition to keeping in touch with all of the ministers and churches I serve and seeking to advice and support them as they face new challenges I have started a series of silly magical videos with my magic accomplice – Stew the Rabbit. They have a short encouraging message at the end and you can see them at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCydPS_gPVXqtwZEO2CfO9yw if you are interested. I have also done a virtual magic show for a group that is keeping its members in touch with one another. Both have challenged my video recording and creation skills. It’s been fun.

So I go back to my initial question. How are you coping? I wonder if you can turn that level of ‘cope’ into prayer? If it’s ‘not very well’ – ask God to help you to manage those emotions and to bring you someone who can encourage you. If it’s ‘okay’ – ask God to help you to flourish and to grow beyond ‘okay’. If it’s ‘thriving’ then ask God to help you to see others who are in need and find ways of encouraging and supporting them. You may not be a praying person. That’s okay. God’s not selfish – he loves to hear everyone’s prayers and responds to them. You may not really be sure if there is a God. That’s okay too. God knows you exist and will respond to the level of faith that you have.

In the Bible Jesus spoke about having faith the size of a mustard seed (very small) and that amount of faith being able to do amazing things. But how do you quantify mustard seed sized faith? I reckon it’s having just enough faith to pray.

May you know God’s blessing and love during these unusual days. And if you do pray, my prayer to go with yours is that you will be able to see God’s answer or even that you may be the answer to someone else’s prayers.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

space to think?

The coronavirus pandemic is scary in both the scale of things and the speed it spread (taking advantage of how interconnected global travel has made us). It’s also scary for individuals who may have caught it (and their families) and for those who are worried that they might. Maybe you are worried about the dystopian nature of the measures being taken to try to contain the outbreak. I don’t intend to diminish the significance or impact of this. I pray that you may find some comfort about it.

When I was little and had been naughty one of the punishments was being sent to my room to “think about what I had done.” I wonder whether this virus is providing us with a moment that otherwise would not have existed to think about what we have done: as the normal commerce, travel and activity of 21st Century life are suspended does it give humanity an opportunity to pause and reconsider what’s important? Will a period of isolation help us realise how much we need one another? Will the inability to do lots of the things we take for granted mean we no longer take them for granted when they are restored? Will there be things we have to do without that we realise we actually can manage without and don’t restore them to our life afterwards? Will we realise that helping one another builds community while selfishness builds walls?

Those don’t have to be questions that are only answered at a global level. We would do well to consider them as individuals, families and communities.

And I wonder if this is giving the planet a rest from human pollution and giving us an opportunity to make some of the planet-saving changes that we need to make but which the relentless activity of 21st Century humans has made it impossible for us to contemplate until now?

The first half of Psalm 23 might just have a global significance, not just a personal 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,[a]
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

I don’t believe for one second that God has caused this pandemic, but maybe we will allow ourselves to listen for his voice in it…

Be blessed, be a blessing

1%

Just over 2 years ago I had a major operation to sort out an aneurism on my aortic root. And our wonderful surgeons, doctors and nurses in the NHS did an amazing job of repairing and restoring me (not forgetting all those behind the scenes who cleaned, adminned, physioed and all the other unseen heroes), for which I am incredibly thankful.

In the pre-op meeting with my surgeon he was very reassuring but he needed to tell us about the risks. He said that there was a 1% risk of me dying during the operation. That was scary. Of course he also said that if I didn’t have the operation there was a 100% chance of me being killed when the aneurism burst, so it was a ‘no-brainer’.

But it was interesting how much bigger that 1% became in my mind. It wasn’t a disabling thought that stopped me functioning, but it was there – hovering in the background.

At least it was until a very wise woman suggested that I draw a circle and shade in 99% of it. She didn’t say anything else, just left that hanging.

So I did. It looked a bit like this:

And suddenly things were back in their right perspective. Yes, there was still a risk of me dying, but there was a 99% chance of me living. As my surgeon said, if you knew there was a 99% chance of winning the lottery, wouldn’t you buy a ticket?

I am aware that there will be some people for whom the spread of Covid-19 is alarming because, unlike a common cold, it carries a mortality rate with it. And each day the media (bless it) updates us on the figures – those who have caught the virus and those who have died from it. But the mortality rate is 1%.

Now across the world there are stringent emergency measures being put in place to try to limit the spread of the virus and slow down infection rates and they can make the 1% look huge. Yet there is a 99% chance of survival. While there are going to be a lot of isolated people over the next few months we can use social media to keep in touch. We can help each other out.

Here are a few ideas I have had and have gleaned from others:

Home food delivery slots from supermarkets seem to be in massive demand. How about getting together with your neighbours (especially if they don’t shop online) and doing a joint order?

Think of someone you know who is in a job that means they can’t stay at home and bake them a cake, send them a message, pick some flowers or do something else that says that you’re thinking of them and appreciate what they are doing.

Send an encouraging email, text message or social media post to someone different every day.

Don’t panic buy. We’re in this for the long haul and there will be enough for everyone if we all carry on buying supplies at the normal rate. Stockpiling is selfish. If you have stockpiled, perhaps you could make a gift of some of your resources to someone else?

If you are a follower of Jesus think about how you can apply his teaching – such as the parable of the Good Samaritan – in new, practical ways. And offer to pray for people.

I am sure there will be lots of other examples of how we can support and bless one another. Be imaginative. Be generous. Be kind.

Be blessed, be a blessing

fruity

Recent tragic events where high profile people have taken their life or had their reputation destroyed, and the ‘abdication’ of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have brought into the spotlight issues about kindness.

One of the issues is how people use social media. A response to these events that has grown from the general public has been a rise in awareness of the need for kindness. I have been tempted for a while to unsubscribe from some of the social media sites I use because of the abusive nature of some of the comments and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the social media companies to monitor and clamp down on this. I find it abhorrent how some people feel justified in writing hideous things about other people, often only known to them by their public reputation, and can’t begin to understand how painful and hurtful it must be to be on the receiving end of this. (I have not left yet because I feel it is important to try to be a positive influence in the cesspool* of hatred, trying to write positive words of encouragement in the face of the abuse.)

And I almost weep as I write this, but Christians can be some of the worst in being judgmental and condemning others who hold different views to them. How that fits with Jesus saying that people will know that we are his followers if we love one another I don’t know.

Of course it’s not just social media. Look again at how the mainstream media treat people in the public gaze. Every so often when there is a tragedy or they get caught being unethical or illegal they talk about self-regulation and not being intrusive into people’s lives but it seems that they can’t help themselves and before you know it they have crept back into their old ways. And we (the general public) encourage them. If people didn’t buy the newspapers or watch the TV programmes they would either have to change their ways or fade into obscurity, but we fuel their intrusive, abusive and accusative approach to ‘journalism’ by avidly consuming what is presented to us.

It strikes me that recent the call for kindness may be tapping into something that is in the heart of human consciousness. I think it’s part of the way that God put us together – a glimpse of his nature inherent within us. And it’s something the Bible talks about, and which God’s Spirit cultivates within us if we seek it, nurture it and practice it (in Galatians 5, NIVUK):

22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance [patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

I don’t think we can generate these things on our own. We need to seek the help of the One who created them. Pray that these things would become hallmarks of who you are. And if you are a follower of Jesus think about your social media profile and see how much of that fruit is evident…

But we can’t leave it to him either. Find ways of doing these things and you will find that they grow faster within you – God’s Spirit will have fertile soil to do his work. And notice that all of them are for the benefit of others (in part or in whole). They are not much good to us if we are not in relationships with other people. But other people will be blessed if we bear that fruit.

And I may be a bit ideological here but what if we all bear more of that fruit, even just a little bit? How much more like heaven on earth will our existence be?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*If you think I am being melodramatic or overly critical here, just read some of the comments below almost any news article online or when a high profile person makes a mistake.

followed

Eyes of a Hunter

Just over a week ago I returned from sabbatical leave, which was incredibly refreshing and a time of great personal blessing. I didn’t do a lot of travelling… or so I thought until I had an email from Google this morning. They kindly told me how much I had travelled in the past month. Apparently I have travelled over 1000 miles by car or train. And I have walked just 4 miles! THAT is definitely wrong, I have no idea how they missed so much walking activity (honestly). And it doesn’t take account of all those visits to the gym either.

I could look at this two ways – I could either be amazed at how they have been able to keep track of me and tell me so much information about me (including places I have visited) or I could be concerned at how much they are tracking me. Do I really want my every move recorded and reported? I guess it depends on what I think their motives are – benign, benevolent, commercial or sinister? Time to update my security settings I think.

It feels reminiscent of Psalm 139. Here are the first 6 verses:

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

I don’t find that sinister because I know God’s motives. There is something incredibly reassuring in these verses – reminding us that God knows all about us and is for us. If you have time read the rest of the psalm and, for a while, I suspect that feeling of reassurance will grow. Then you will reach the final stanza in which the psalmist pleads with God to slay the wicked and destroy all his enemies. I suspect we’re tempted to leave out those verses when we read the psalm in public. But they’re there because they’re honestly how the psalmist felt. We need to be honest with God because, as the first verse tells us, he knows us. I suspect the psalmist wasn’t sure about including those honest verses because he finishes with:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

That’s a good prayer for all of us, whether or not Google is tracking us. May we known that we are known, anxious thoughts and all, offensive ways and all, and may we be led in the way everlasting.

celebrating third place

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.

Be blessed, be a blessing.