In the UK it is ‘Mothering Sunday’ this Sunday (important to point this out for international readers who celebrate it on other dates, and to point out that I have international readers [smug mode enabled], and to make those international readers feel included). Where was I? Oh yes, ‘Mothering Sunday’. It has the potential to be another day designed to line the pockets of card and gift shops across the country as more and more “stuff” is produced just for that day.

At its heart, however, is thankfulness for the human experience of being mothered. It is chance to be thankful to those who have given us their love, patience, encouragement, patience, lent us their car when we were learning to drive, patience, tidied our rooms (or got us to do it eventually), patience, put food on the table for us, patience, nurtured us and did I mention patience? They need not have been our biological mothers, or even women, but they have shared motherliness with us and we are grateful to them.

In preparing for Sunday morning at church I have reflected on Isaiah 66:12. It’s a passage that was originally written for the Jews in exile and is assuring them that God has not forgotten them. It reveals something of his character to them and how he views them with motherlike affection. There is a lovely image of God treating his people the same way that a mother dandles a child on her knees.

Have you ever been dandled? I was not sure, so looked it up. Dandling is affectionately bouncing a child up and down in your arms or on your knees (now you know). That image took me back – first of all to my childhood when I can remember being bounced on knees, and then to my children’s earlier days when they were bounced on knees. The dandling was invariably accompanied by giggles, laughs and joy. It’s a shame I am too big to be dandled today.

The image of God dandling us on his knees has charmed me. There are times when I think he must despair of me but his desire is to know me as his child and to spend time with me in laughter and joy. Wow! That thought has just made the hairs on my arm stand on end and sent a shiver down my spine!

So let’s regress to childhood for a story. I can remember story-time on the radio as a small child: ‘Listen with Mother’, which always began: “Are you sitting comfortably? [pause] Good, then I’ll begin…”

The three bears

Baby Bear goes downstairs and sits in his small chair at the table, he looks into his small bowl. It is empty. “Who’s been eating my porridge?!!”, he squeaks. 

Daddy Bear arrives at the big table and sits in his big chair. He looks into his big bowl, and it is also empty. “Who’s been eating my Porridge?!!,” he roars.

Mother Bear puts her head through the serving hatch from the kitchen and yells, “For Pete’s sake, how many times do we have to go through this?

“It was Mother Bear who got up first, it was Mother Bear who woke everyone in the house, it was Mother Bear who made the coffee, it was Mother Bear who unloaded the dishwasher from last night, and put everything away, it was Mother Bear who went out in the cold early morning air to fetch the newspaper, it was Mother Bear who set the table, it was Mother Bear who put the cat out, cleaned the litter box, and filled the cat’s water and food dish, and, now that you’ve decided to drag your sorry bear-butts downstairs, and grace Mother Bear’s kitchen with your grumpy presence, listen good, cause I’m only going to say this one more time . . .


Living on past glories

I have become a convert. I have moved from being a breakfast-time listener to BBC Radio 5 (news and sport) to BBC Radio 2 (music and laughs). That probably says a lot about me, but the conversion is based principally on my enjoyment of Chris Evans and the team (Radio 2) and my getting more and more annoyed with Nicky Campbell’s interviewing techniques and approach to his colleagues (Radio 5).

That little prologue was to set the scene for the main bit. In a recent show, following the Academy Awards (aka Oscars) Chris Evans asked listeners what awards they had received. That got me thinking about awards I have received in the past. There was the time I was playing in goal for Horsham Baptists FC Third XI and was awarded ‘Man of the Match’ even though we lost 9-0 (I kept the score down to a reasonable level apparently!). There was my one and only swimming certificate (10 metres) at primary school, when I doggy-paddled my way down the pool, just making it to then end of the pool before my feet hit the bottom of the pool. I was awarded a School Prize at the end of my Sixth Form for running the Christian Union and School Volleyball Club (and got awarded a parking ticket too when I went to collect it at the prizegiving).

And there was the time when I was a lad in the 1st Torquay Boys’ Brigade Company and was part of a team that won the Brek Trek (hiking race in the Brecon Beacons). We were given a shiny trophy that we were to share between the three of us. I took it home first and promptly forgot to let my colleagues have it until I uncovered it when we were preparing to move to Colchester two years ago! One of the other two team members was then my boss so I cleaned the trophy up and passed it to him so he could have it on his mantlepiece and reminisce for another 25 years before passing it on to the final member of the team.

All this nostalgic glory made me feel good for a while. Then I came back to reality. While remembering good things from the past is great, it is no substitute for living in the present. We can’t live on past glories. I reflected on an exercise we did at a recent prayer meeting. We tried to think of five things for which we were thankful for God that had happened that day. It brought our faith into the present day, rather than living on past events. It’s something I am trying to incorporate into my daily routine so that I can be more aware of what God is doing now, and live with an attitude of gratitude,

To conclude, and bringing together the theme of awards and humour, I leave you with the joke that was voted ‘Funniest religious joke ever’ on the Ship of Fools Website. It was written by American comedian and mammal Emo Philips (pictured).

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. 

I said, “Don’t do it!” 

He said, “Nobody loves me.” 

I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” 

He said, “A Christian.” 

I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” 

He said, “Protestant.” 

I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” 

He said, “Baptist.” 

I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” 

He said, “Northern Baptist.” 

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” 

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” 

I said, “Me, too!”

Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” 

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

Bless a Bureaucrat Day

Bureaucracy is a necessary fact of life. We need people who organise things for us – those who design bus and train timetables, people who manage the benefits system, the organisational structure in the background behind important services like hospitals and the police. On the whole bureaucrats get a bad press. If you are in that line of work and someone asks you at a party what you do for a living you are more likely to say ‘Administrator’ or ‘Civil Servant’ than ‘Bureaucrat’. The word just sounds so… bureaucratic.

We all notice when bureaucracy goes wrong. I am waiting for a date for a hospital appointment and phone calls to the admissions office have been met with sympathetic resignation from the bureaucrats (I think they should reclaim the name) at the other end of the line. They are not in charge of deciding when my appointment will be and are very sorry. At the same time this week I have been chased by another bureaucrat: calling twice to offer me appointments I don’t need. It’s a shame I can’t merge the two systems!

I always try to be sympathetic to these people when I speak with them. I believe that they are trying their hardest to be helpful and often are as exasperated with the system as we are. It’s almost always not their fault that they can’t supply the appointment we want or the answer we need. 

So, I would like to declare tomorrow ‘Bless a Bureaucrat Day’. If you are on the phone or speaking face to face with someone who is a bureaucrat tomorrow (even if they will not admit it) say something encouraging to them. Assure them that you are not angry with them. Ask them how their day is going. And if they have not hung up on you or gone to see their supervisor because it has never happened before and don’t know how to cope you can bless them further with some bureaucratic one liners:

A clean desk is a sign of a cluttered desk drawer.
If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.
I don’t have a solution, but I do admire the problem.
Jesus is coming! Look Busy.
I love deadlines. I especially like the whooshing sound they make as they go flying by.
A Committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but as a group decide that nothing can be done.
Meetings: the practical alternative to work.

A smile on God’s face

I am convinced that God has a sense of humour. You only have to consider the fact that he called me to be a Minister to have your hackles of suspicion raised. A little more theological deduction and you may suggest that having a sense of humour is inherently human and God made us… therefore he must have a sense of humour to give us. Not entirely convincing as an argument because it would follow that therefore he must also have a trunk like an elephant, stripes like a zebra, leaves like different trees, a mouth that closes on flies like a venus fly-trap and every other attribute of his Created order.

When I was at the vicar factory where they tried to train me I wrote my dissertation on a Theology of Humour (subtitled ‘A serious look at the lighter side of God’). I loved writing it and discovering humour in unexpected places throughout the Bible. I won’t bore you with it now, but one of the joys was discovering humour in Jesus. We miss much of it because we do not share the same sense of humour as first century Jews, but it is there all right. I sense that so much of what he said was with a sparkle in his eye and a broad grin.

At first this seemed so out of character with the dour, serious Man of Sorrows that I learnt about growing up going to church that I could not cope with it. It felt wrong. But then I realised that if Jesus was fully human then he must have had a sense of humour as well. (As Jesus is also fully God, we can say through theological deduction that therefore God does have a sense of humour). So you see him smiling knowingly as he tells people that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe that this was Hebrew humour, based on hyperbole (exaggeration to an extreme). Jesus was not saying it was impossible, he was simply cracking a joke to show just how hard it is.

I had a conversation with someone today who was asking about when Jesus said that we should hate our parents and siblings. Was he serious? Well, I wonder whether he was cracking another hyperbolic joke here. The point was not that we should hate our family, rather that we should be 100% devoted to God and that he should have our first loyalty.

People who listen to my sermons are usually treated (!?) to a joke or two. I think it is good to season what is said with a little joy and levity – if it was good enough for Jesus who am I to argue? So here’s a chuckle to conclude:

The old man placed an order for one hamburger, French fries and a drink.
He unwrapped the plain hamburger and carefully cut it in half, placing one half in front of his wife.
He then carefully counted out the French fries, dividing them into two piles and neatly placed one pile in front of his wife.
He took a sip of the drink, his wife took a sip and then set the cup down between them. As he began to eat his few bites of hamburger, the people around them were looking over and whispering.
Obviously they were thinking, ‘That poor old couple – all they can afford is one meal for the two of them.’
As the man began to eat his fries a young man came to the table and politely offered to buy another meal for the old couple. The old man said, they were just fine – they were used to sharing everything
People closer to the table noticed the little old lady hadn’t eaten a bite.
She sat there watching her husband eat and occasionally taking turns sipping the drink.
Again, the young man came over and begged them to let him buy another meal for them. This time the old woman said ‘No, thank you, we are used to sharing everything.’
Finally, as the old man finished and was wiping his face neatly with the napkin, the young man again came over to the little old lady who had yet to eat a single bite of food and asked ‘What is it you are waiting for?’
She answered
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Face furniture

I normally wear contact lenses. I find them far more convenient and less intrusive than wearing glasses. Indeed I find wearing glasses to be uncomfortable after a while. Today, however, I wore my glasses at church because one of my eyes has become a little irritable (I don’t know what I did to make it so fussy) and wearing contact lenses is uncomfortable.
Today was the first Sunday I have worn them and I think that people spent more time focusing on the glasses (pun intended) than anything I said or did. You would not believe how many people commented on me wearing the glasses.

I had people telling me that the glasses suited me and my bald head; that they made me look more intellectual / intelligent / studious / distinguished; that they made me look more like a doctor (?); that they made me look more handsome; even that they went well with my suit! I think people were being complimentary. But why is it that when I don’t wear them nobody comments on how I look? 

Nobody normally tells me that I look intelligent or like a professional person. It may well be that I look daft, unprofessional, plain, that my face does not go well with my suit and people are keeping quiet to avoid insulting me. In which case, ‘Thank you for your consideration’. On the other hand I suspect that it is the unexpected appearance of a pair of glasses on my face that made them think about the way I look.

I’m relieved that God is not as worried about what’s on the outside. A pair of glasses don’t make him think any differently about me. He already knows me completely (although the Bible verse about him knowing how many hairs are on my head is becoming less impressive by the week as the hairs continue to evacuate my scalp). He’s not affected by how I look. He simply takes me as I am (the real me, not the superficial one I project) and says, ‘Let’s start from here’ as I seek to follow Jesus with his help.

However, I am tempted to wear a wig to church next week and see who is brave enough to comment then!!

Explosive milk

In an effort to be environmentally friendly we are trying to buy our milk in bags (from Sainsbury’s). You buy a groovy little jug that the bags sit in and then pierce them with a cleverly designed spout. The idea is that it saves the world from disappearing under a mountain of plastic milk bottles. We tend to buy a few bags at a time (they are only 1 litre) and freeze some of them so that we have them in reserve.

Anyhoo… one of the bags was being de-frozen, and was standing in another jug. It was a good think that Sally, my wife, had the sense to stand it in a jug as it had sprung a leak. When she was out I came along and saw what had happened. Man thoughts: “That milk bag will be no use in its groovy little jug.” These man thoughts were logical. The milk bag still had large lumps of frozen milk in it while it floated in a gently growing pool of milk at the bottom of the jug. I decided that the sensible thing to do was free the frozen milk and allow it to join the escaped milk at the bottom of the jug.

I picked up a pair of scissors and lifted the bag with frozen milk out of the jug. I forgot that it would be slippery because of the unfrozen milk on the outside and as the bag reached the top of the jug it slipped out of my grasp. Back into the jug (fortunately).

Unfortunately it hit the pool of milk at the bottom of the jug with considerable force and the milk made a violent bid for ultimate freedom. Milk went in all directions. It was like someone had placed an explosive charge at the bottom of the jug. I stood there, dripping in milk, for that second in which I took in what had happened. Then I wiped every surface in the kitchen (and inside the cooker – how???) while reciting a mantra: “bother, bother, bother, bother, bother…” (honestly, that was the mantra).

The thought briefly crossed my mind that I would laugh at this in the future, but I dismissed it as I did not think it very funny at that moment. Well you don’t when milk is dripping off you and running down the fronts of the kitchen cabinets onto the floor. But now I am finding it amusing (even if you aren’t). It seems that things do look different in hindsight than they do at the time. 

The same is true of much darker experiences than a milk explosion. When we are in the midst of them we can’t always see beyond the experience. It fills our view. Afterwards we can look at them differently and see them from a better perspective. In my experience I can see that God has been with me through them, even if I didn’t know he was there at the time. He has been there through the kindness of others, he has been there through their prayers and he has been there going through it with me. 

Perhaps today he got covered in milk too.

Love is… like a Bugatti Veyron!

Do you remember the ‘Love is…’ cartoons? They used to be in the paper and would have some sweet statement that related to the way a man and woman love each other. The example here has the caption: ‘Love is… not asking how much her new dress cost.’ You get the idea. (If you want to see lots of these, visit www.loveisfan.com). I suspect that the original idea for these cartoons came from the Bible – from the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13 that describes love in different ways.

I have the joy of preaching on 1 Corinthians 13 on Sunday morning. That’s the chapter that is often read at weddings and funerals because it is such great poetic literature. I can understand why it is used in that way, but it’s a real shame if that’s all it’s ever used for. Kind of like having a Bugatti Veyron and keeping it in the garage to look at without ever driving it. (For the unitiated, that’s a Bugatti Veyron next to this paragraph – 16 cylinder engine, 1001 BHP, 253.5 mph, you get the idea – for lots of info for petrol-heads visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bugatti_Veyron).

I’m in the middle of preparing the sermon now (“So what are you doing blogging rather than writing the sermon?” I hear you shout) and am being blown away by the depth and impact of the passage. It’s a high octane ride all right. It revs loud and clear at you from the first words to the last and takes your breath away.

You shouted at me a moment ago, asking why I am blogifying not sermonising. I am about to put pedal to the metal, but before I do I needed to stop and regain my composure because it’s so exhilirating. The only problem I can foresee is that there is so much in the passage that we may need a very long sermon. Those from my church who read this before Sunday morning have been warned. 

Vrooom, vrooom!