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:
1 You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 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.
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.
I recently smashed my little toe against a chair leg. It hurt. I yelped. The pain was so bad that as I looked down at my little toe I half expected to see it hanging limply from my foot, or even having been amputated altogether. It wasn’t, it was still attached correctly. But it hurt.
Over the next 24 hours the toe gradually grew purpler, remaining as tender as ever. Then other colours starting joining the party in my little toe and migrating across the whole of my foot. I was sure that my toe was not broken because when I (like a brave little soldier) flexed my toes it joined all the others in bowing its toenail head. It hurt, but it worked.
Having a poorly little toe had several wider effects. One was that it affected my gait slightly. I don’t think I limped but there were occasions when I shuffled. Another was that putting shoes on or taking them off hurt a lot so once I got a pair of shoes on I tended to keep them on for the day. And I realised that I really did need a new pair of slippers which, had I been wearing them at the time of the impact between my toe and the chair leg might have protected me from the worst of the pain.
As I reflected (bravely) on the pain in my toe I was reminded of some words that Paul wrote about churches in 1 Corinthians 12 (NIVUK) – my emphasis:
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.13 For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 And so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.
I had taken my little toes for granted, ignoring them unless the nail became too long or sharp. They were weak, irrelevant and I could do without them. However, once one of them was damaged I realised just how much work they do, and how much they are needed to help me keep my balance and to walk. Tiny little things in relation to my whole body, but really useful.
A while ago I spoke about the ‘body of Christ’ metaphor in the Bible and spoke about armpits. If I asked people which part of the body they thought they were, I don’t think anyone would say that they are an armpit. But armpits are essential to help prevent the body from overheating. Why do they get hot and sweaty? They are one of the body’s heat-sinks, a place where excess heat is got rid of.
Now, if I am asked to speak about the ‘body of Christ’ metaphor I might also speak about little toes and how important they are even though they appear insignificant. I might speak about how the whole body is affected by a little toe that has been badly bruised by being smashed into a chair leg. I might speak about how it’s indispensable. I might even suggest that perhaps Paul wrote this after he had hurt his little toe at some stage because he seems to understand how much it affects you.
So if you are a part of a church and feel insignificant, perhaps you are a little toe. You may think that you don’t do anything but by being part of that church you are helping to provide balance. If you weren’t there the church would be diminished. You are part of what helps the church to move forward – God can speak through you in decision-making as much as anyone, which is why you ought to try to get to church meetings if you can.
And if you are in pain, ill or unwell, if the church is any good, it will affect them all. You won’t suffer alone. You won’t feel neglected. You won’t feel as if you don’t matter because the love that is received from God is shared between you, among you and through you all.
And if you are part of a church leadership, make sure you watch out for the little toes in your church. They are essential and as important as everyone else, and if they are hurting you ought to feel it too.
I have a lot of issues with some of the ways in which the Genesis Creation narratives are used by Christians. They are theological poetry (look at the way that the verses in Chapter 1 are set out in your Bible – not like prose, more like the settings of the Psalms) and narratives that are designed to emphasise the who rather than the how – who created, who humans are, who we are in relation to the planet, who we are in relation to one another. If we start to use these foundational chapters as a science textbook we are asking them to do something they are not designed to do – like using the clothes washing machine to wash the dishes.
But that’s not my major confession today. That relates to chapter 2 verse 18. Chapter 2 is very much the tale that tells us how we should be stewards of the planet and the life that teems on it rather than masters, and the story that shows us the importance of human relationships and companionship. The thing I have got wrong for all of the [coughs loudly to disguise the large number] years I have been reading the Bible is my growing unease with the description of Eve being created as “a helper suitable for him.”
My chauvinistic prejudices are shown in all their glory here if I explain that I had always assumed (and been unhappy with the implications of that assumption) that the ‘helper’ was subordinate to the person being helped. In effect, I had read ‘assistant’ or ‘support act’ rather than ‘helper’. Now don’t get me wrong, I fundamentally believe that all humans are made equal and I do not believe that men are superior to women – we all have the same ‘made-in-God’s-image-ness’ inherent in our being. And that is why I have been uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘helper’ because I had always read it as suggesting inferiority when I do not believe that there is any inferiority or superiority between any humans.
Part of the problem is that I have only read the passage in English and relied on the translators to give me the best equivalent word for the ancient Hebrew. If you explore the ancient Hebrew word which we translate as ‘helper’ it carries with it a sense of someone who assists and encourages. It is someone who provides support for someone who needs help.
And the same word is used several times in the Old Testament to describe the help which comes from God.
And we translate a Greek word used for the Holy Spirit as ‘helper’.
And when you add the word which qualifies ‘helper’ in Genesis 2 (which is translated as ‘fit for him’) it actually means ‘suitable for him’ or ‘matching him’. A literal translation is ‘like opposite him’. It actually has nothing to do with superiority.
I am much happier now. Especially when I reflect that ‘helpers’ are more often the experts. A good football coach has greater knowledge and experience which they use to help a team work together as well as possible and offer tactical changes and inspiration that help them to win games. A teacher has vastly more knowledge of their subject than their students as they help them to understand it. A breakdown assistance mechanic has far more knowledge and ability than the driver of a broken down car as they help them to get back on the road. And a magician’s assistant is often the one who does the difficult and dangerous work that makes the magician look good. A ‘helper’ is an empowerer who in many ways is greater than the one who is helped.
So that is my confession. I have wrestled uneasily with that word for so long – finding it jarring with what I believe about God and humanity – and now I can embrace it and relax knowing that because there are others around me who are my helpers I am able to grow beyond what I am now.
Today is the day after the 2019 General Election in the UK. Those who read this blog regularly probably won’t be surprised to learn that it was not the result I was hoping and praying for. So what do we do? We can stomp around in an angry huff, complaining about fairness and how the election campaign was fought. And that may make us feel better in a cathartic fashion, but it is not a sustainable solution. I want to offer HOPE and have four suggestions how we can do that:
If social media is anything to go by there will be a lot of people who are disappointed in the election result. Indeed, the way our electoral system works there are more people who voted against the new government than who voted for it. So how can you help others to come to terms with the result? Rather than ramping up the rhetoric can you offer gentle, calm words of wisdom? An offer of a cup of tea or coffee may seem insignificant but it shows you care when someone is sad. And a non-critical listening ear costs only time.
Can you explore ways of helping during the term of the next parliament? For example, can you help support a local foodbank. From being almost non-existent 10 years ago last year the Trussell Trust, which supports a national network of foodbanks, distributed ovr 1.6 million individual food parcels and they have seen a 23% increase in demand between April and September 2019 over the same period last year.
Can you help support those who feel more vulnerable because of the policies that are planned or will be maintained by the current government? It is not likely that things like Universal Credit are going to change anytime soon, so if you are aware of those who have been adversely affected by such policies try to find out whom you can help and how. It may not be you on your own, but with a group of friends you can make a difference.
We can all help with those who are lonely and isolated. Who in your neighbourhood could do with a visit, help with shopping, a lift or some lunch?
If we were to calculate the value in pounds of the work of volunteers in the UK it is estimated as about £24 billion per year! If it didn’t happen there would have be a massive hit on taxes to provide those things. This country has to rely on each other, not just on government. That includes you and me.
There is something we can all do to HELP.
There were a number of promises made by our new government during the election. There was a lot of doubt expressed about them, but we need to be vigilant now and seek to ensure that they are kept.
According to the Conservative Manifesto we should expect to see: 50,000 new nurses in the NHS; no income tax, VAT or National Insurance rises; pensions to rise by at least 2.5% each year; that no-one will need to sell their home to pay for care; progress on achieving zero emissions by 2050; £6.3bn spent on 2.2 million disadvantaged homes; a commitment to reduce poverty, including child poverty, through changes to tax and benefits; 250,000 extra childcare places; tuition fees frozen at £9,250; a new Manchester to Leeds rail line and £2bn to fill potholes; millions more invested every week in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure while controlling debt; and 20,000 more police.
Those are Manifesto commitments. So lets make sure that they happen. Check your newspapers and news bulletins. Try reading reports from those who don’t share your political leaning to inform yourself. Let’s be OBSERVANT.
I don’t mean here that we try to predict the future. In the Bible prophecy is more about speaking (God’s) truth in the present. So how can we be prophetic?
We can dissent. Baptist Christians (my church family) have their roots in dissent. They spoke out against injustice and evil where they saw it. In the bad old days when it was illegal to be a non-conformist many of them were imprisoned (John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while in prison). Christians have led campaigns for social change including the abolition of the slave trade and many of the social improvements in the Victorian era. The Drop the Debt and Jubilee 2000 campaigns began with Christians at the heart of them, but it’s not just Christians. Bob Geldof led a movement in the 1980s that culminated in Live Aid and (in my view) began the process of major fundraising events supporting the poorest and marginalised in our world that continues through Children in Need, Comic Relief, Sport Relief and others. Greta Thunberg is making a massive difference by raising the issue of climate change in a way that has motivated millions so that the powers that be are being challenged to increase the rate of change.
There’s a great tradition of prophetic action in the Bible – from sitting naked on a pile of ashes to marrying a woman of dubious reputation and taking her back when she was unfaithful. I am not suggesting either of those actions, but what action can you take? It may be something simple like ensuring you reduce your plastic consumption, recycling more or walking or cycling shorter journey distances to reduce your impact on the environment and encouraging others to do the same. It may be joining in with a protest march, or signing an online petition. There may well be other things you’re inspired to do. Do them.
We can all be PROPHETIC.
This follows on from being prophetic. As well as prophetic action to highlight issues and make a difference we need to engage with those in power – those who may be able to change things.
If we see injustice we should not sit by and remain silent about it. If there are things that are wrong we should campaign against them. And if there are others who are speaking out we should support them. If nothing else we should contact our MP and point out the issues (I think I have been put on an activist watchlist by my MP (Con) because he hasn’t replied to my last 2 emails where I pointed out flaws in some of the government plans and activities, but he did reply to the earlier ones). When I lived in a different constituency I engaged with my MP (Lib Dem) about Foodbanks and he didn’t like it (you can see it here – read the comments at the bottom of the bloggage for the full account) but it got a response.
Keep going. Encourage like-minded others to join you. One thing Greta Thunberg has reminded us about is that a single voice can make a difference, but it is most effective when it motivates the many voices. Speak truth to power.
It is suggested that one letter or email to an MP is considered to represent the views of hundreds. So imagine the impact of 100 people writing to the same MP.
If you are a praying person, pray for politicians too. They have a difficult job, whatever we think of them. When they do something you like, write to encourage them. Don’t only be a moaner (I need to do something about that).
At a time when it may feel that your vote didn’t count for much, let’s remember to keep ENGAGING with our politicians at national and local level.
I am sure that by now you will have realised that the 4 suggestions above give and acronym of HOPE. Let’s ensure that hope never dies and give it to those who feel hopeless.
Today we mourn the loss of Truth who died un-noticed, forgotten and much-maligned. Truth (age unknown) died after a long period of neglect and abuse at the hands of humankind who had not realised she had gone.
Despite her indeterminate age, people remarked that Truth seemed to have been around forever. References to her have been found in manuscripts covering all aspects and eras of human endeavour right from time's dawn.
Truth had always been fragile and vulnerable to being unfairly impersonated by half-truths, spin and fibs. And while in earlier years she stood firm against the tainted mimicry of her true self and dishonest ad libs her strength was undermined.
Truth tried to speak out against deceit and manipulation of facts that she claimed were abuse And looked in vain for allies who would help her counter the accusations of fake news by any who were so inclined.
Until her death Truth was often taken for granted and her full value was unappreciated by the masses. Her inate value was in her ability to speak plainly and honestly and not look through rose-tinted glasses at subjective perspectives offered in her place.
She refused to be swayed from her conviction that people deserved to see her for themselves, and in later years tried in vain to be heard above the resounding gongs of voices that had her expelled and couldn't look her in the face.
Truth came under significant pressure to moderate her radical convictions and purity, And adapt to the times to become what others told her to be as a sign of her social maturity to continue to speak to power.
Concerted attempts were made to bully her to concede her place in the bright light of scrutiny or believe what they told her to believe instead of speaking out about how what she could see was being turned sour.
"What is Truth?" is a question that has been asked through the ages (most notably on the lips of Governor Pilate) in an attempt at justifying an unwillingness to stand up for her in the face of fiscal influence or mob violence that sought to erase her.
Truth is much lamented by those who find victims of lies on the margins and in a maelstrom of misery. She had championed their cause against politics and money, power and might throughout the course of human history but died in their place.
If you own a car you will know that one of the greatest enemies of the automotive conveyance is iron oxide… aka rust. It slowly, imperceptibly, gently corrodes the bodywork and chassis of a car and, if left untreated, eventually renders it unusable and fit only for the scrap heap.
And there is an emotion that I think is the human equivalent of rust. It can eat away at work relationships, friendships, families, whole communities and even a society as a whole if left untreated. What is this corrosive feeling?
It undermines, it erodes confidence, it justifies bullying and violence and it has the potential to destroy.
I struggled initially to consider hate as an emotion, but I guess it is in that it is a emerges from our circumstances, our interactions with others and our moods. In itself it is as intangible as the chemical oxidation process that creates rust – you can see the effects of it but you can’t actually see hate happening. You can see it in someone’s face or eyes, hear it in their voice, see it in their actions, but you can’t see it on its own. And hate does not live in isolation. It needs something to feed off in order to exist. It needs a scapegoat, it needs a victim, it needs to be able to blame another person or indeed a whole culture. We don’t say, “I hate” we say “I hate [you/them/it]”.
I am concerned that it feels like there is an increase in hate in our society. You only have to surf social media to see how easily people react with hate to someone with whom they disagree or who has a different perspective to them. You only have to listen to the rhetoric of some politicians to hear hate very close to (or on) the surface as they blame ‘others’ for the ills of society (and if not hateful words in themselves they can be designed to incite hate in others). You only have to look at government statistics to see it: the number of hate crimes recorded by the police having more than doubled since 2012/13 (from 42,255 to 103,379 offences)*.
So what can be done about it? Surely there is some sort of societal rust treatment that we can apply.
You might think it is tolerance. And that can help slow down the slithering spread of hate, but it does not stop it completely. You see tolerance has a couple of flaws. First of all it is a value rather than an emotion so it works at a different level: I can tolerate something while still hating it. Secondly tolerance has its limits – tolerance cannot cope with intolerance and becomes intolerant of it. Someone who holds a view that is counter to the views of others and is not willing to tolerate them is unacceptable in a tolerant society (unless they are the majority – at which point tolerance is trumped by democracy).
You are probably well ahead of me here, but I think the treatment for the corrosiveness of hate is love. Not romantic, mushy love. Not erotic, sexual love. Not even familial love. The sort of love I think can counter hate is what the Bible calls ‘agape’ (an ancient Greek word you don’t find in many other places in ancient literature). ‘Agape’ is a love that wants the best for others. It sees the positives above any negatives. It blesses, encourages, includes and affirms.
It’s made famous by 1 Corinthians 13 that you may well have heard at a wedding:
13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
The love described here is ‘agape’ love. And while it’s an emotion it’s also an intention, an attitude, a verb and a noun, and a lifestyle. If it is adopted in the form described above it has the ability to stop the spread of hate-rust, remove it and replace it with itself. Of course ‘agape’ also needs a subject, just as hate does. “I love” does not make sense but “I love [you/them/it]” does.
If it’s such a powerful weapon against hate why is it not employed more often? It’s the cost. True ‘agape’ costs a lot more than many people are willing to pay. It costs your self-centredness, it costs your win-at-all-costs ambition, it costs your pride and feelings of superiority, it can even cost your reputation and dignity. Why does it cost so much? Because you place others before yourself. You consider everyone else’s well-being and welfare before your own.
That sounds really costly doesn’t it? And it is if ‘agape’ is only expressed in pockets in a society. But imagine a society or organisation where everyone is motivated by ‘agape’! That sort of society does not have extremes of inequality, it does not have people on the margins, it does not have winners at the expense of losers. If everyone is seeking to live by ‘agape’ then it creates the sort of paradise that God intended the world to be. If you doubt me, read about God’s Jubilee plans in Leviticus 25 and you will see how that sort of society is God’s intention. (We get occasional glimpses of it (such as in the early church described in Acts 2) but it’s regrettably fleeting.
It’s what I believe church should be like. It doesn’t always happen because we are human and fallible, but it should be our ambition and intention that we become places where there is no place for hate because love wins. And if churches can come close to being communities of ‘agape’ then they will be close to being the free samples of Jesus that we are supposed to be because it’s exactly what God is like.
And it happens as we open ourselves up to being changed by God through prayer and reflection. It happens as we offer up our hate and ask him to treat it with ‘agape’. It happens when we reorder our lives and put him first, others second and ourselves third (recognising how amazing we will feel if everyone is doing the same).
Be blessed, be a blessing.
*It is suggested that this increase is due to improvements in crime reporting, but that seems to be a naive and unsubstantiated assumption. You can see my source here.