audrey 3

So, this is Audrey 3. (That’s a Little Shop of Horrors reference, nothing to do with my Grandma for anyone who knows my family). I have always been fascinated by plants that eat insects and when recently I had a persistent little fly in my study I decided that now is the time to get myself a venus flytrap.

In researching beforehand I discovered that a supply of water and good light is more important to the plant’s survival than a supply of insects. I found out that they really don’t like being triggered without gaining food from it as that takes a lot of energy. And I discovered that venus flytraps only grow naturally in boggy land in North and South Carolina in the USA.

So far I have not seen Audrey 3 in action. I have kept her well watered and she sits near the window in my study in order to get the light she wants. But the pesky little flies have not decided to fall for her charms. I am not sure what I am expecting if / when they do. I would like to think that there would be a ‘whump’ followed by “Om, nom, nom, nom” but I suspect it will be far less dramatic than that.

I do wonder what vegetarians and vegans make of carnivorous plants. Do they cheer them on for getting their own back on more sentient beings, or do they resent them for eating ‘meat’?

And then, more recently, there was a freaky moment on YouTube. I had been speaking with a couple of people about Audrey 3 and why she was called that. Then yesterday as I was scrolling through the videos YouTube was offering me to view, I was offered a song from Little Shop of Horrors! How on earth did they know that I had been thinking about this show? Are they monitoring my conversations? Are they ready my mind?

Of course not. It’s just one of those random coincidences that happen sometimes and which the human brain contrives to put meaning to. Like when a song has been on our mind and we switch on the radio and it’s playing. Or when we have a sense of deja vu. I have a hunch that this is how superstitions start. Something happens just after something else and we attribute a causal connection. So perhaps a black cat walked underneath a ladder while someone was spilling some salt and at the same time a mirror was broken and a person who had been walking on the cracks in the pavement got distracted and tripped over… There must be some sort of connection.

It’s like bad luck always coming in threes. Nope. But sometimes it does, and sometimes we notice that it did.

I wonder if it’s true that the same people who are willing to see cause and effect at work in random events are less willing to see a creative mind behind the universe we inhabit, and are less keen to think that the Creator might be interested in them?

Be blessed, be a blessing – and if you have any flies you want getting rid of, you know who to call (or is that another film?).

training

train 2
Not the train I was on!

I was on a train yesterday at silly o’clock in the morning. It was almost full of commuters heading into London, however there was a spare seat between two blokes so, muttering an apology for disturbing them, I tried to squidge my way into the space.

I am not a very wide person and I kept my arms and elbows in front of me in order not to cramp those beside me, but the two of them reacted very differently. One of them (we’ll call him ‘Lefty’ because he was on my left) gave way a little. He moved across and enabled me to fit one side of my back against the back of the seat. I couldn’t get my arms back, but that was okay. He also kept his legs together so there was room for my legs.

The other, on my right, (guess what we’ll call him? Yup. ‘Bob’) did not give me anywhere near the same amount of space. Bob remained spread out. His arms and shoulders were pinned against the back of the seat (and part of the back of mine). I couldn’t lean fully back against the back of the seat because of him, so I remained hunched forward, hugging my backpack. His legs were spread out in such a way that if I hadn’t shifted mine it would have been a bit… intimate. Bob was not giving me a millimetre of ‘his’ space. He also had ear buds in and was playing music loudly enough for me to be able to hear the tinny ‘tshh te tshh te tshh’ that we are often blessed with by fellow passengers.

Because I was so cramped I could not move my arms to get out my phone or my Kindle to entertain myself, so I remained in this position for the rest of the journey. Every time we stopped at the station I willed him to get up and get off the train, but Bob was glued in place and my telekinetic powers were useless against him. It was not a comfortable journey.

Now I realise that I could have asked him to move. But I could see in the reflection of the glass in front of me that Bob had his eyes closed. He was either asleep, feigning sleep, or trying to block out the fact that there were other passengers and that made it more uncomfortable to contemplate interrupting him and asking him to give me my space. And I am British. And I wasn’t sure what sort of response I would get. So I suffered in silence.

At the end of the journey we all disembarked and part of me was feeling quite resentful about Bob. He hadn’t given me any consideration at all. But I had chosen not to ask him to move, and maybe he hadn’t realised how uncomfortable I was.

A part of me also thought, “Well played!” He had maintained his position, preserved his space, and had a much more comfortable journey than me.

So what are my reflections on Bob and Lefty?

There are times when we need to be considerate of others. We need to adapt our behaviour, attitude and approach in order to enable them to grow and flourish. It’s a part of what Jesus meant by us being ‘servant-hearted’.

But there are also times when we should not yield to the demands of others if they are going to cause harm to others or if they are asking us to compromise our core beliefs. In Luke 21:19 Jesus said to his friends (in the context of being persecuted), “Stand firm, and you will win life.” (NIVUK)

The art is knowing which is appropriate at any given time. I would suggest that the difference is to do with whether our core beliefs are under threat. Of course we need to know what they are, and we also need to be sure that we are not elevating secondary issues to the status of ‘core beliefs’ because we want to get our own way.

Be blessed, be a blessing

sticking your oar in

Yes, it’s been a long time since I last wrote anything here, but in my defence I have had a lovely week off last week, which accounts for most of the time!

While on holiday in Center Parcs (near Thetford) Sally and I went for a row on the lake. It was a lovely day and it was very pleasant pootling about on the water. There were quite a few other people out and about in a range of different craft and I have reflected on them:

There were some energetic people who were in what looked like a catamaran made of two canoes. Six people were brandishing paddles and attempting to coordinate their strokes so the boat went in roughly the desired direction. It seems to me that such a vessel clearly needs to have agreed priorities and a good sense of teamwork otherwise they will either go around in circles or head off in the wrong direction. How often do organisations (churches included) go wrong because of a lack of shared vision and people who all choose to do their own thing rather than working together?

There were some electric boats out there. They were gliding, apparently effortlessly, around the lake and because they were electric they didn’t make any noise. If you weren’t watching where you were going they might sneak up on you and surprise you. What bothered me about some of these boats was that they didn’t seem to understand that their ability to change direction and speed was much greater than our rowing boat so we couldn’t be sure that they would avoid us. I decided that we needed to make our intentions clear and change direction early to avoid them when in fact it would have been a lot easier for them to change direction. Are there times when people cause others around them to have to make adjustments to accommodate them without realising the impact they are having?

There were some pedal boats. You know, the good old fashioned kind. They had the advantage of pedal paddle power, and I think they had a rudder too. I couldn’t tell whether everyone on board had pedals or whether it was just the couple in the stern of the boat (that’s what it looked like) but they could go quite a pace when they put their mind (and legs) to it. I’m not sure if it was possible for some of the crew to coast while others (or just one) did all the hard work (a bit like the person on the back of a tandem could) but there were definitely some boats where it looked like there were people who should not have been passengers who weren’t putting in a shift. Does that sound familiar?

Other boats were available, but none were on the lake at the time we were. There were, however, three couples who had chosen to row a traditional rowing boat. Of course in those boats the person who is rowing is facing backwards, so they depend on the passenger to tell them what is going on ahead of them and give them some guidance. Each person has an important but different role to play. When it was my turn to row I discovered that I had a dominant hand which meant that I naturally pulled harder on one oar than the other one. That led to a tendency to head off course. I had to keep correcting the direction we were travelling in. It’s really helpful in those circumstances to have someone with you who is giving you guidance as they can see the way ahead more clearly. You have to trust and rely on them.

Draw whatever lessons you feel you can from these reflections, but for me the most important one is that it was good to spend time with the one I love on a lake, rowing.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the parable of the choir

piano

“The greatest choir I have ever heard!” Sandra felt a tingle of electricity running down her spine and the hairs on her arms stood on end as she read the headline in the local newspaper. Last night the choir she had founded – Concordia – had sung as the headline act in the final concert of the town’s music festival. Sandra had to admit that they had sounded incredible. The singers had been lifted by the atmosphere in the theatre and had sung their hearts out.

It had all started eight years ago when Sandra had watched The Choir on television – when Gareth Malone had taken ordinary people and formed them into choirs. Sandra had been excited about the relationships that had formed, but more than that she had been inspired by Gareth’s ability to bring the best out of people and bring them together in harmony to make a wonderful sound together. Sandra had been a singing coach for a number of years so felt that she ought to be able to do the same. She had asked her friends and family and they had formed a small choir. As they grew in confidence the choir members invited their friends and colleagues to join them and the choir also grew in numbers so that now there were 35 of them meeting once a week to rehearse.

Concordia rehearsed in the local school on a Monday evening, alongside other evening classes. Sandra didn’t plan any concerts or performances, she was just enjoying being the choir director and the choir members seemed to enjoy singing together. But then people started listening outside the doors of the school hall after they had finished their evening classes, and then once one of them had sneaked in to listen at the back of the hall a small crowd would do the same and they had an audience. Sandra didn’t mind. She was focused on leading the choir and getting the best out of them. What she didn’t know was that one of the uninvited audience worked in the Town Council promoting community activities and they were planning a music festival. When the music festival organiser rang Sandra out of the blue and asked if the choir would like to perform as part of the event she was stunned. Sandra had never envisaged that the choir would do anything but rehearse together. The following Monday she told the choir about the invitation and, after some initial shyness, the choir had enthusiastically voted to do it.

Things escalated from there. Before Sandra knew what was happening she found that Concordia were listed in the final event of the festival. Then, just a day before the performance, the headline act had to pull out due to an attack of laryngitis and Concordia were promoted to the headline act. For their first public performance! But what a performance it had been. A standing ovation at the end had been followed by two encores – so great was the audience’s applause.

But the morning after the performance, as she read the article in the newspaper, the elation and euphoria ebbed away. Even though the reporter had written a really glowing review of the performance and had clearly been moved and thrilled by it there was no mention of Sandra by name, or even any mention of the musical director at all. It had been her idea, her choir, her hard work and her leading but it was as if she had not been there. Where was her acclaim?

At first the choir only sang for themselves and their own enjoyment. What aspects of (church) life are like that?

Are there times when we feel a bit like Sandra at the end – unappreciated and unacknowledged? What might you say to Sandra to encourage her?

Who are the unappreciated people who might appreciate a similar word of encouragement?

Be blessed, be a blessing

a partly political broadcast

Iceberg 1999 by M A Felton

Regular readers of this irregular blog will realise that I am rarely overtly political in what I write. I am certainly not party-political, preferring to keep my allegiance to myself, however much of what I write will have political overtones and undertones. You can’t write about poverty without being political. You can’t write about truth without it being a political comment. And, I dare to believe, you can’t write about faith without being political because faith is not lived out in a vaccuum, but is all about matters of life and death, right and wrong, hope and expectation and these are all political issues.

On the whole I have kept quiet about the defining political debate of this generation – Brexit. But the recent parliamentary debates on this have left such an unpleasant taste in my mouth that I feel I need to put fingers to keyboard and commit some more words to the millions that have been written about this so far. So if you don’t want to read a rant, look elsewhere, because this is most definitely one of those!

This whole brexit debacle has revealed the deep flaws within our political system in the UK, and in particular that party-politics has put our country in deep peril. We were led into a referendum on this subject by a Prime Minister whose party was threatening to fracture on this fault line (and who has been notably absent since his resignation when his ‘remain’ campaign lost). He gambled that he would win the referendum and therefore keep both his party together but lost and his party is even more divided than before.

The Prime Minister who replaced him has always been struggling with the establishing some sort of coherent policy in spite of the divisions within her party (and perhaps even within herself as she had voted ‘remain’ but is now resolutely determined to lead the country out of the EU). How many ministers have resigned during her leadership? This was most notable after the disastrous Chequers cabinet meeting in which she declared that she had established unity about the way ahead and within a matter of a day or so several significant members of her cabinet had resigned and declared the plan ‘unworkable’! These politicians have put self-interest before the interests of the country.

There was the ridiculous 5 day debate in Parliament before Christmas when Parliamentary time was dedicated to the question of whether to support the Prime Minister’s deal that she had negotiated with the EU and when it became clear that because of the divisions in her own party and the lack of support within Parliament for her deal the PM suspended the debate without a vote. When it was repeated in early 2019, with no substantive amendments to the deal being debated the PM suffered a humiliating defeat.

And most recently Parliament has debated a number of amendments and voted for one that says that we must renegotiate the deal when the EU has said that there will be no renegotiation on the issues that have proved so contentious. In the midst of the discussions and debate party-politics and personal ideologies seems to have taken priority over the needs of the country.

It’s as if we are on the Titanic steaming fast towards the Iceberg and have voted that the Iceberg needs to change direction!

And, in case you accuse me of solely anti-government bias, I do not think that the Leader of the Opposition has done much to help in this time of national crisis either. Instead of holding the government to account he seems to have resigned himself to a quiet acquiescence that we are going to collide with the iceberg and hope that in the ensuing wreckage there will be an opportunity for him to launch a lifeboat that makes him PM instead.

The country needs to change course drastically!

There have been so many false promises that it is impossible to list them all, but each time they are broken the public trust in politicians is eroded just a bit more. Politicians have made outrageous claims about what will happen in the future when they know that they have no way of backing them up with facts or proof. Fantastical conjecture has been cynically peddled as certain reality (‘£350million for the NHS’ on the side of a bus, by way of example). And some newspapers have been guilty of perpetuating and propagating these lies in the guise of facts in order to further the thinly-veiled political aims of their owners who hide in the background in their wealth-protected bunkers. Others have even protected themselves by investing their wealth overseas, and some in EU countries!!!

You might be able to discern how upset I am about all of this. I did vote ‘remain’ and still believe that leaving the EU is a massive mistake. I fervently believe that what is euphemistically called a ‘no deal brexit’, ‘hard brexit’ or even a ‘clean brexit’ would be catastrophic for the UK, and in particular for those who are most vulnerable in our society. To me it is a devastating indictment of many of those whose voices are loudest about how we should leave the EU that they are among the wealthiest in our country and least likely to be adversely affected by the economic tsunami that I believe is threatening on the horizon.

I am praying hard that somehow in the midst of the parliamentary chaos voices of reason and truth will be heard and listened to. I have written to my MP (who I have seen on TV pronouncing how ‘brexit means brexit’ and how we should leave with no deal, so I don’t expect him to listen to me). I hope and pray that somehow, when peering over the edge into the abyss of brexit, enough politicians will find the courage to set aside party allegiance, to ignore the whips and vote in a way that puts the interests of the poorest in our country first. Trust and truth are not the only victims of this.

Whether or not you agree with my analysis or political standpoint, I hope that you will at least be praying.

Be blessed, be a blessing


is Christmas over?

Christmas is an amazing season isn’t it? A whole church calendar month is taken up with retelling the narrative from what amounts to just a handful of verses from the Old Testament and a handful of chapters from the New Testament. Yet there is always something new in the narrative to captivate, challenge and provoke us no matter how long we have been a Christian. If you strip away the tinsel, baubles, presents and fat beardy blokes in red suits we are left with an astonishingly complex series of events.

It’s a narrative that begins with a pregnant nation and a pregnant teenager, leads us to a bewildered fiancé, changes scene due to a politically-motivated relocation, peaks with a birth in squalid conditions, involves rough and ready strangers poking their noses in uninvited (reminding us that Jesus is for the rough sleepers as much as the wealthy)… and it’s the story of God with Us. It’s the story of God breaking all of the theological rules because he loves us all.

But we’re past Christmas now. It has been taken down, packed away and assimilated into our churches in the same way that we assimilate that new pair of socks from Aunt Doris into our wardrobe – comfy and familiar, so why am I going on about it still? Well, I am left uneasy with that shift, especially in a lot of free churches. Because we may well have missed out significant parts of the narrative that are as much ‘Scripture’ as any other.

My wife often comments that she has rarely heard a sermon on the significance of the faithful, prayerful expectation of the elderly Simeon and Anna. And I have rarely heard (and even more rarely preached) a sermon on Herod that culminates in the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. He makes a cameo appearance as the pantomime villain in the nativity story – a signpost for the wise men (back to them in a moment) but it’s not easy to think about infanticide on the scale that he ordered. And of course it led to Jesus being a refugee, a ‘migrant’ (asylum seeker?). (Would he have ended up in a rubber boat trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety today, perhaps even ending up in Calais?)

And there are those pesky wise men. Pedants (me included) remind us that there was an indeterminate number of them, albeit three gifts. But they were astrologers, they were foreigners, and (heaven forbid) they may even have been magicians (‘magi’ is the root of the word). They were guided by some sort of celestial phenomenon and play a pivotal role in the narrative by reminding us that Jesus was not just for the Jews. Yet their meddling led them to alert Herod to Jesus’ birth and quite possibly led to the toddler-bloodbath. What good did their worship gifts of gold, incense and myrrh do the bereft parents?

All of this reminds me that to try to create a neat, tidy, sanitised gospel is impossible because God in not neat, tidy and sanitised. He is God with us in the midst of mess and carnage. He is God with us in emotional trauma. He is God with us in confusion. He is God with us when we feel on the outside. He refuses to be limited by human expectations or theology. We can attempt to describe him but he’s always going to surprise us by being beyond our imagination.

We often talk about ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking out of the box’ because we don’t want to be constrained by tradition and expectation. And I warm to that. But paradoxically I want to confine my thinking this year. This year I want to think inside the manger. Who knows where that will take me?

a new you?

So, a new year has begun. The fireworks displays are no longer burned on our retinas, the echoes of Auld Lang Syne have faded away and whatever passes for normal life is being resumed just as it was in 2018. Of course there are a few differences: we have to get used to writing 2019 on letters, cheques and so on but in reality not a lot has changed in the changing of the calendar year.

Except that at the start of a new year we are encouraged (or perhaps challenged) to think of new things. In the days of paper diaries I used to love having new, fresh pages to write on. I would resolve that this year I would write neatly (that lasted until the first time an entry had to be changed). And resolutions are the flavour of the month in January, aren’t they?

We resolve to be fitter, healthier, happier, more efficient, better organised, more eco-friendly, more friendly… any number of possibilities for a new and improved version of yourself. It’s the lifestyle equivalent of having a new diary with fresh pages – so may possibilities to improve and enhance our life and establish a hoped-for better-than-last-year feeling.

It’s been interesting this year to notice how many people are suggesting on social media that you don’t need a ‘new you’, you should be content with the you that you are. And I agree with that, to an extent. Nobody should feel under pressure to create or innovate a new way of being simply because others have led them (or advertisers have conned them) into believing that they are not good enough, they don’t have enough of the right things in their life and that they ‘should do better’ (to quote many of my school reports).

But I also want to say that being content with the me that I am does not preclude me from wanting to be the best me that I can be. I know that there is always room for improvement. There are always ways in which I can better fulfil my purpose in life. They will always be new experiences, new people and new opportunities that will shape me so that I am not the same ‘me’ that I was last year.

So how do we hold these two in tension? I think the answer is to recognise where the motivation comes from. If it is external we should regard it with suspicion and caution – does that influencer have my best interests at heart or someone else’s (including theirs)? If it is internal we should treat it seriously, weigh it, evaluate it and if we want to pursue it then we can do so with the liberty of someone who is not under duress.

That does not mean we should not listen to other people or take their advice. Neither does it mean that we should always listen to our own whimsical ideas and act rashly. Wisdom is required. Discernment is beneficial. Because if you want to be the best you you can be I am fairly sure that there is always more that can be done – the art is to work out what that is, whether it is achievable, and to work towards it diligently and enthusiastically.

In the Bible the book of Ecclesiastes seems to be a book that is full of doom and gloom. Everything is deemed to be meaningless and pointless. It could have been written by Eeyore, AA Milne’s lugubrious donkey in the Winnie the Pooh stories. Yet right at the end Eeyore (or possibly the King) comes to a startling conclusion, having looked at the whole of life (Ecclesiastes 12):

13 Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

Fearing God is not being terrified of him, but having a sense of awe about him. Keeping his commandments is not about following a rulebook but living sensibly to get the most out of life. And knowing that you can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes means we can live openly and honestly. And because there’s a sequel to the Old Testament (aka the New Testament) we know that God has also done all that is necessary to deal with the parts of us that need some more serious renovation.

Be blessed, be a blessing