news of the world

If you watch, listen to or read the news at the moment it can make for miserable reading. There’s hideous violence committed at individual, community and international levels. There’s devastating poverty that is affecting people, countries and whole regions of the world. There is hideous greed that is making a few rich at the expense of those who can least afford it. Environmental crises are breaking out across the globe with a seeming unwillingness to act from some of those who are most able to make a positive difference, preferring short term economic gain while sticking their fingers in their ears and ignoring the clamour for action. There is blatant racism, sexism and other prejudices that seem to be encouraged or at least not condemned at the highest level.

It’s not likely to lead us to a happy place is it? Even the ‘and finally’ lighthearted items on the news or the plethora of funny cat videos on the internet can’t lift the sense of gloom.

So what can we do?

Have another look at Psalm 23. You probably all know it, or have heard of it. Yes, that’s right: the Shepherd 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,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever.

(NIVUK)

Most of us don’t have a lot of experience of shepherds, especially ancient near-Eastern ones, so what can this ancient piece of poetry do for us today?

First of all, recognise that an ancient near-Eastern shepherd was responsible for protecting the whole flock and providing for them. It wasn’t simply a question of leaving them out in a field, the flock would roam the countryside. And they would follow their shepherd who would go ahead of them (not driving them from behind as in the UK), listening for his voice and trusting him because he had provided for them in the past. No sheepdogs were needed because the shepherd was trusted and known. David, who wrote this psalm, had experience of this as he had been a shepherd, and that was one of the ways in which he experienced God – someone he knew, whom he trusted, whom he was willing to follow, whose voice he knew.

Green pastures are always good places if you are a herbivore. It’s easy food and provides the nutrients that are needed. In the ancient near-East green pastures would have been at a premium, bearing in mind that it was/is a hot climate. Much of the land would be dry scrubland with not so much to eat, so if a sheep found theirself led to a green pasture it was bliss , especially if there was also a source of cool water there. If you have been in the hot Mediterranean sun you would be refreshed and feel restored at such places. When we find ourselves in green pastures or beside still, refreshing waters we should not forget to give thanks to the one who has led us there. We should find ways that our soul is restored – what works for you?

The shepherd would know the local terrain and would know which were the paths to follow. Some might be difficult but they would go to the right destination. Here ‘right paths’ doesn’t just mean those that go to the right places, however, it also refers to ‘righteousness’ or ‘faithfulness’ and means that the flock benefits from the shepherd’s faithfulness. ‘For his name’s sake’ means that God acts consistently with his character. There are many names given to God in the Old Testament and all of them reflect something of his character. Even referring to him as ‘The Lord’ as David does at the beginning of the Psalm is bigger than we imagine. The word in Hebrew is YHWH – the Hebrew word for God that was originally unpronounceable because there were no vowels but is now sometimes pronounced ‘Yahweh’. It derives from the Hebrew for ‘I am’ and reminds us of the eternal nature of God, the existence of God, the constancy of God, the self-sufficiency of God and so much more. That’s the One who’s our shepherd!

Following the shepherd does not mean that we’ll always be in green pastures and beside still waters. There are times when we go through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death). We all know that to be true even though we hate to admit it. The difference for those who follow the shepherd is that they know he is with them as they travel through that dark valley. They may be frightened, worried, anxious or even terrified of what is in the shadows, but they know that the shepherd is there with them and is committed to them. You’re not alone if you don’t want to be.

The psalm abruptly changes from a pastoral metaphor to a banquet scene. There’s a celebration, a meal in our honour, and we will be vindicated in the sight of those who have opposed us. The host is generous to us and honours us. Did you notice too how the language changes from an impersonal third person (‘he’) to a personal second person (‘you’). This is not a theoretical expression of faith, it’s a personal relationship with YHWH. God’s care for us is genuine: not just a story of a shepherd but an experience of love, care, honour and justification.

And there’s an eternal dimension to this that can never be taken away from us.

Add to that what Jesus said about being the Good Shepherd and it becomes spectacular!

None of this changes the news. But it may help us look at it differently knowing that YHWH is leading us, with us, for us and we are his eternally.

Be blessed, be a blessing

passwords

loginI don’t think I am the only one who has come to hate passwords, am I? In the good old days of telephone banking I might have to remember one password along with my date of birth and mother’s maiden name. I was rubbish at it. I could remember my date of birth and mother’s maiden name but kept forgetting the password.

Now password protection is everywhere and we are told to use a different password for each website and password-protected activity. How on earth are we meant to remember them all, and what chance do we have at remembering which password was for which event?

I have to remember a password to log onto my computer. And periodically my computer tells me that the password has expired and I need to choose a new one. Not re-use an old one, but create a new one! The pressure of trying to come up with a new combination of characters that would be difficult to guess and easy to remember causes my eyeballs to swap places and my brain to deflate like a sat-on whoopee cushion. And then when I switch the computer back on I have to try to remember the new password and the sneaky variations of capital letters, numbers, symbols and other special bits. And while I am typing these things in all I am shown is a series of dots so there is no way of knowing if I have typed the wrong thing. I’m sure that the stress we feel at that time is not healthy for us.

And then there’s the anxiety caused if the password that I have typed in is deemed incorrect. Now what? I try typing it again.

Nope.

I try variations on a theme.

Nope.

I try the old password (just in case).

Nope.

I type in the password as I remember it but R E A L L Y slowly.

Nope.

I start complaining to the computer that I am typing it in correctly in the hope that it will be sympathetic to me.

Nope.

I get to a place where I am almost in tears and, as a last resort, type in the password again.

And suddenly it’s deemed acceptable!

And that’s just to get into the computer. Next I am confronted by passwords for my email, for websites and for all manner of other things. And for some of them, if I get it wrong too many times, I then get presented with some squiggly letters and numbers that I have to try to interpret and type in to prove I’m not a robot! They’re almost impossible to read.

Others don’t ask me for the whole password, they just want the 3rd, 7th and 17th character from the password. How am I supposed to work that out?

And all of my other gadgets have password protection too.

Aaargh!

The only consolation I have is that if I am finding it this hard to get into my computer and logon to websites then perhaps those who have malicious intent will also struggle.

The thing about computer passwords is that you have to type them in perfectly for them to be acceptable. You have to have the right characters, the right case for the right characters, and the right characters in the right case in the right order. One mistake and it’s…

Nope.

As I reflected on my password angst I thought that perhaps this is a good analogy for the good news of Jesus: To be in God’s presence we need to get the password absolutely right: and the password is our life. One mistake and it’s…

Nope.

But the good news is that Jesus has given us his password – his perfectly-lived life. His death was the moment that his password became universally available and gives us complete access to God. And it always works. All we have to do is use it.

And while I am sort of happy with that parable, I am also discontent with it. Because it makes it seem as if God wants to keep us away from him and that he wants to keep us out. In fact the opposite is true. God wants us with him, he wants us to know him, to experience him, to be with him forever. He loves us so completely that we will never fathom the depths of his love. I get the feeling that rather than wanting us to remember the right password all he really wants is for us to want to gain access to him, to want to know the password. He will then supply the password and everything else we need.

Be blessed, be a blessing

not much has happened

Dear Bloggists, sorry that it has been a while since my last bloggage. Not much has happened in the intervening time…

We have been on holiday to Sweden, meeting up with lots of Sally’s friends (and me making new friends). So I have seen lots of lakes, lots of words that in Swedish are normal but in English are funny (such as the delicious chocolate sweet in this photo).

I have seen castles and visited the Royal Palace at Drottningholm (in my mind a bit like Windsor Palace for the Queen in the UK as it’s a bit out of Stockholm). I have walked in a national park and heard some interesting noises that may or may not have been an elk or a wild boar.

I have discovered a new special concept: fika. This is stopping for tea / coffee and a cake, and can be at any time. Indeed as I write this bloggage I am also enjoying fika with a cup of coffee and the last of the Swedish cinnamon buns we brought back.

I have performed some magic for some of our Swedish friends, and also for an 8 year-old daughter of the friend of one of our Swedish friends on her birthday. It’s quite a challenge performing illusions when you don’t share a language, but it seemed to go well. I think an open mouth and wide eyes means the same thing for audiences in most languages!

And I have performed magic with a message at Heart for Harlow’s town centre service (not long after two women performed songs from Disney’s Frozen, complete with costumes.

I have had the date confirmed for my interview to join the Magic Circle. If I get through the interview I will then have an examination (audition) to perform later on.

We have been welcomed into Membership of our local church, South Woodham Evangelical Church.

Oh yes, and my friend Richard Jones only went and won Britain’s Got Talent! Well done Richard! You can see the two of us performing together last year here at the end of a show when we hired out a local village hall. I guess his days of performing in village halls may be over!

So not much has happened.

It is easy to get caught up and carried away with events, especially when they are either really positive or really negative, and forget that God wants us to involve him in these things too. When it’s good we sometimes forget to be grateful to him. When it’s bad we sometimes forget to call out to him (unless it’s to blame him).

I have written before about having an attitude of gratitude, and I am so grateful for all of the above experiences.

I am grateful that when things are not so good I know that I do not have to face those things alone. I know that He is with me when I walk through the darkest valley and I am grateful that nothing can separate me from his love.

I guess I am even grateful for the ability to be grateful. And I am also grateful that I have someone to be grateful to. If you don’t have a relationship with God, who are you able to be grateful to?

Today why not try listing things for which you are grateful, and be grateful to the One who gave you the ability to be grateful?

Be blessed, be a blessing

prayer support

I’ve just been writing my monthly prayer diary, which is sent to a group of people who have offered to pray for me and the Ministry to which God has called me. As I was about to send it out I remembered that my Grandparents told me that they used to pray for me every day. I didn’t doubt it for one moment.

spot the torch
Crowds of people in Colchester cheering on the Olympic Torch Relay

Of course I am certain that they also prayed daily for their children, their other grandchildren, and quite a lot of other people and situations around the world. That was one of their qualities and gifts to others. And whilst I do know that many other people were praying for me, it was one of the things I felt I had lost when they died and joined the great crowd of witnesses cheering on from the galleries of heaven.

So now, knowing that there are others who have promised to pray for me daily, I realise I have not lost that spiritual support and encouragement of others, it’s just been passed on to others. I try to offer the same support to others too.

Yesterday morning I was preaching from Mark 2, the righteous vandals who ripped open a roof to lower their paraplegic friend in front of Jesus. Among the many things that are significant in that passage, as I was speaking it struck me afresh how Jesus acted “When he saw their faith.” Not the faith of the man on the mattress in front of him, but the faith of the four friends peering anxiously through the hole they had made in the roof. It reminded me of how we bring other people into the presence of Jesus in prayer and in faith, and God acts in response to that faith.

So, if you have ever prayed for me, thank you for your faith. If you pray for other people. Thank you for your faith. If you are in need of prayer, and know that others are praying for you, be encouraged that God acts in response to the faith of those who bring people into his presence.

And how much faith do you need? Just enough to pray – God does the rest!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Black Friday deal

image

Great news. I’m pleased to be able to announce an incredible Black Friday deal. You won’t be able to find a better one!

You can get a fresh start in life, forgiveness for the past, a relationship with God, a helper who is always with you, live life in all its fullness, a global family of billions, the sting of death drawn so you can experience eternity in God’s presence, and a promise that it won’t be easy.

And for one day only you can get all of this ABSOLUTELY FREE.

That’s right, it won’t cost you a penny. The price has already been paid (see Good Friday).

Terms and conditions apply – you need to be willing to allow God’s Spirit to change you, admit past failings and turn away from them, acknowledge that your fresh start in life is a gift from God made possible by Jesus and live your life accordingly.

This offer has previously been available at any of God’s outlets (aka churches) on any day of the year at the same price.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

setting boundaries

Isn’t it amazing how God draws things to our attention when he’s trying to tell us something? Well, perhaps it’s not amazing because he often does it. It’s more that I’m amazed that he persists with me.

Last week I was sent an e-mail about something I had shared with the church a long time back which had stuck with somebody. This morning I was in the ministers’ office at the church and picked up a piece of scrap paper. When I turned it over I realised that it was the same thing that I shared which had stuck with that person. So I thought it might be helpful to share it with you and also remind myself about it because it may well be something God is reminding me about as a minister and us as a church.

It’s all to do with bounded and unbounded sets. Hopefully you will be able to see what I mean from the diagrams below. You can apply in different ways. Perhaps it speaks to us about formal church membership. Perhaps it speaks to us about welcome and inclusion. Perhaps it speaks to us about both issues and much more.

For the most part churches operate as bounded sets. We operate on the basis of who is in and who is out, often defined by membership or regular attendance. We work on the basis that we want to invite people to join us, to become one of us.

But Jesus operated an unbounded set. He invited people to follow him not to join his club. He was attractive in the way he acted and treated people and in the words he used. He was inclusive, reserving his words of condemnation for the religious elite who were operating a bounded set mentality.

Hmmmmm.

bounded set onebounded set twounbounded bounded set oneunbounded set two

I’m not going say much about this now, I might well come back to it once I have a clearer idea of what exactly it is that God is saying to me and our church. But what is God saying to you about this?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

(Apologies if the order of clerical accession is incorrect, I’m a non-conformist after all!)

A Catholic Priest and a Rabbi were chatting one day when the conversation turned to a discussion of job descriptions and promotion. “What do you have to look forward to in way of a promotion in your job?” asked the Rabbi.

“Well, I’m next in line for the Monsignor’s job.” replied the Priest.

“Yes, and then what?” asked the Rabbi.

“Well, next I can become Bishop.” said the Priest.

“Yes, and then?” asked the Rabbi.

“If I work really hard and do a good job as a Bishop, it’s possible for me to become an Archbishop.” said the Priest.

“O.K., then what?” asked the Rabbi.

The Priest, beginning to get a bit exasperated replied, “With some luck and real hard work, maybe I can become a Cardinal.”

“And then?” asked the Rabbi.

The Priest is really starting to get mad now and replies, “With lots and lots of luck and some real difficult work and if I’m in the right places at the right times and play my political games just right, maybe, just maybe, I can get elected Pope.”

“Yes, and then what?” asked the Rabbi.

“Good grief!” shouted the Priest. “What do you expect me to become, GOD?”

“Well,” said the Rabbi, “One of our boys made it!”

omg

(omg here stands for Olly Murs Girl)

Today I am the father of the most excited teenage girl on the planet. After school today I will be taking her to a book signing. ‘Big fat hairy deal,’ you may be thinking. It doesn’t sound very exciting.

Happy DaysBut the book signing is by Olly Murs, who is the number one target of affection of our daughter (see here for an example of the fanaticism). He’s even signing his own books!

On Saturday morning my wonderfully patient and gracious wife, Sally, got up insanely early in the morning (before the sun had even thought about rising) to drive our daughter to the shopping centre where the book signing will be taking place in order for her to order the book and get a wrist band that entitles her to go and get her copy of the book signed by her hero.

Today is the day when the book signing takes place. I suspect that concentration levels at school may be lower than normal and that most conversations between my daughter and her friends will be so high-pitched as to be almost hyper-sonic. I can’t even imagine what the car journey will be like, other than being pleased that there will be a seatbelt to keep her relatively still.

I am not sure what my daughter is planning to say to Mr Murs. I suspect she is rehearsing it as I type instead of parsing verbs or whatever she is supposed to be doing.

I have not really any personal experience of such a moment. I have never had the same level of fanatical devotion to anyone famous. I try not to be impressed by fame, success and fortune. I have an allegiance to Ipswich Town Football Club; I follow some people on Twitter; I have favourite bands, comedians, TV shows and so on. But nothing approaching the near hysteria that I suspect I will witness this afternoon.

I have just finished reading Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. At times his popularity seems to have generated similar levels of excitement in the crowds that followed him to that of Mr Murs. But you didn’t need a wristband to access him. Indeed when his followers started to organise the crowds and keep away some children Jesus got quite angry with them and told them in no uncertain terms that children were welcome too.

That’s one of the things that has struck me afresh today in reading Luke. Jesus was so accessible. I guess it picks up from the bloggage earlier in the week where I was musing about Jesus being ‘one of us’. Ordinary people could approach God and talk with him. People like you and I could shake God’s hand. He might have been very happy to autograph copies of his latest scroll (except the biographies weren’t written until a bit later).

In Jesus, God is still as accessible today. He’s less than a prayer away. He’s always ready to hear from us. He’s as close to us as the pages of an open Bible. He’s with us, in us, by his Spirit.

God forgive us for Christians and churches ever making it difficult to get to him, to find him, to hear from him.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

See if you can find the tenuous link between this joke and my daughter’s fondness for Mr O Murs:

One night a wife found her husband standing over their baby’s cot. Silently she watched him.

As he stood looking down at the sleeping infant, she saw on his face a mixture of emotions: disbelief, doubt, skepticism.

Touched by this unusual display and the deep emotions it aroused, with eyes glistening she slipped her arm around her husband.

“A penny for your thoughts,” she said.

“It’s amazing!” he replied. “I just can’t see how anybody can make a cot like that for only £74.99.”

 

Tenuous link is that in the word ‘infant’ is the word ‘fan’. Told you it was tenuous!