On Sunday evening at our church we will be having another of our Film Nights. They are relaxed occasions when we gather together and watch a film, with an invitation to reflect on some of the deeper meaning of the film and what it means for our lives.

This Sunday we will be watching The Bucket List. I will endeavour not to give out any spoilers, but the blurb on the back of the DVD case describes it as, “A hilarious and deeply touching tale. The Bucket List charts [Edward and Carter’s] journey across continents, to building a friendship and discovering their own identities.”

The two main stars are Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman and I think it is a lovely, moving film that makes you laugh and consider deep questions. What is it about the arts that they have the capacity to do that to us? Music, even without lyrics, can move us. Poetry can touch deep within. Paintings and sculptures can speak to us in ways that words cannot. Film and theatre can engage us in unexpected ways.

On Saturday I went to the cinema and watched Les Miserables with the two main women in my life (wife and daughter). I had seen it at the theatre in the past and was moved by it, but the film production of it left me with a lump in my throat.

I am sure that wiser and deeper thinkers than me have pondered why the arts can move us, and probably have been awarded PhDs for their troubles. But here’s how I see it. God has made us with emotions as a way of helping us to engage more deeply with him, with each other. with his world and with ourselves. We are moved, we feel joy, we express laughter, we cry because we are created to be affected by all that is around us. It is an essential part of being human. It is part of being created in God’s likeness. It is part of understanding the world in which we live and ourselves within that world.

We respond emotionally to the arts because they meet us on an emotional level that is underpins intellect and cognitive ability. Stories resonate with us. Images remind us. Sounds and melodies stir us more profoundly than knowledge can.

I think that it’s part of us growing emotionally as well: we have a safe place to ‘rehearse’ our emotions so we can know how best to respond to them in other circumstances. It can help us to empathise and sympathise with others.

One of the messages for me in The Bucket List is that there is more to life than we often allow ourselves to experience. In our morning services we are exploring what it means to follow Jesus and live life in all its fullness. I don’t have all the answers, but I know that God wants us to explore what it means to be fully human in a relationship with him: allowing ourselves to be emotionally affected by many different aspects of his world and allowing him to speak to us through them.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A film crew was on location deep in the middle of Dartmoor. One day a wizened, weather-beaten old man went up to the director and said, “It be gwin ter rain termorrow.”

The next day it rained. A week later, the old man went up to the director and said, “Termorrow there be gwin ter be a hoooge storm.” The next day there was a hailstorm.

“This man is incredible,” said the director. He told his secretary to hire the old man to predict the weather. However, after several successful predictions, the old man didn’t show up for two weeks.

Finally the director sent for him. “I have to shoot a big scene tomorrow,” said the director, “and I’m depending on you. What will the weather be like?”

The old man shrugged his shoulders. “Oi dunno,” he said. “Me radio is broke.”

empathalogical ministry

Okay, tonight it’s an early evening bloggage due to a busy day. Sorry to anyone who starts their day with my blog – today will be rather short for you!

Today has been filled with Baptist Ministers. You could call it a deluge of Baptist Ministers. I had a great lunch meeting with two fellow Baptist Ministers in Colchester, Steve and Graeme, and then a good ‘catch up’ time with my colleague, Lynsey, who is on maternity leave. It was good to be able to share with people who could easily empathise. We understood each other because we have similar experiences as ministers.

I think that this is one aspect of the unity of believers. We understand some of what we are all going through because we have all got a faith in Jesus, have all been forgiven, all are being changed by the same Spirit bearing fruit in us, we all share the same heavenly Father. A privilege of my previous post with the Baptist Union of Great Britain was that I got to meet so many different believers – from this country and from around the world; Christians who were Baptists and Christians from other denominations and none. In every case there was an empathy because of what we had in common. Sometimes I would be worshipping in another country among Christians whose language I could not speak but with whom I had Jesus in common.

But there is a greater, more intuitive empathy that I believe is a gift from God. I am asking him to enhance my spiritual radar so I can be more sensitive to people, sensing when they are in need, sensing if I can help. sensing how I can pray. This comes from the Spirit of God at work in both of us, and resonating within me. I want to be able to do this in order to enhance my pastoral effectiveness. I suspect that as all of us have the same Spirit it is something that can happen to all of us, but he wants us to practice, to take a risk, to step out in faith. It won’t happen if I keep my mouth shut and don’t act on impulse (no, not the perfume!).

Be blessed, be a blessing.

(em)pathetic ministry:

Ol’ Fred had been a faithful Christian and was in the hospital, near death. The family called their preacher to stand with them.

As the preacher stood next to the bed, Ol’ Fred’s condition appeared to deteriorate and he motioned frantically for something to write on.

The pastor lovingly handed him a pen and a piece of paper, and Ol’ Fred used his last bit of energy to scribble a note, then he died.

The preacher thought it best not to look at the note at that time, so he placed it in his jacket pocket.

At the funeral, as he was finishing the message, he realized that he was wearing the same jacket that he was wearing when Ol’ Fred died. He said, “You know, Ol’ Fred handed me a note just before he died. I haven’t looked at it, but knowing Fred, I’m sure there’s a word of inspiration there for us all.”

He opened the note, and read, “You’re standing on my oxygen tube!”

he who laughs last… didn’t get the joke

Is it wrong to feel happy when someone struggles to pronounce ‘Schadenfreude’*?

I have recently been the cause of a lot of joy for other people. Rotten rail journeys that went wrong have caused a certain amount of glee for people who have experienced them vicariously through my Facebook statuses. I think that counts as schadenfreude.

I think I have also experienced it through the well-meaning comments of friends. I can now confess that for most of last week I was suffering from kidney stones that had shifted into a painful place. People, I think trying to sympathise, frequently told me that this is as / more painful that childbirth (men usually saying ‘more’) or that it is the worst pain known to humans. To be honest, that did not make me feel much better! I was fairly confident that I knew how painful it was. But I am incredibly grateful for the expressions of support, concern and prayers. It means a lot to know that you are not alone.

I am pleased to say that the pain has now subsided to ‘uncomfortable’ and pray that it will disappear altogether soon. Thank you for your prayers, concern, sympathy and other nice thoughts.

I have wondered whether there are times when my well-meaning comments of encouragement come across as patronising or ill-considered. I try not to say, “I know how you feel” unless I really do know how someone feels. I try to be empathetic when listening to someone. I try too not to make fun of someone’s woes unless they first joke about them. But I don’t always get it right. I worry that I may not say the right thing, so the temptation is to say nothing. I worry about not doing the right thing, so I do nothing. My experience tells me that it is difficult to say the wrong thing so badly that I will cause irreparable damage if I am trying to be caring and pastorally sensitive. Saying something is often better than saying nothing. Doing something is usually better than doing nothing. I have found that people would prefer that we tried, no matter how clumsily, than feel abandoned.

However, I am relieved to know that God really does know how I feel. I am delighted that Jesus’ incarnation means he has experienced life in all its fullness and all it’s woes. I am blessed with knowing that God’s Spirit within me is interpreting all of my deepest groans and needs into prayers in the throne room of the Universe.

*Shadenfreude is the German word for enjoying the pain / discomfort of others.

Fred had been a faithful Christian and was in the hospital, near death. The family called their preacher to stand with them.

As the preacher stood next to the bed, Fred’s condition appeared to deteriorate and he motioned frantically for something to write on.

The pastor lovingly handed him a pen and a piece of paper, and Fred used his last bit of energy to scribble a note, then he died. 

The preacher thought it best not to look at the note at that time, so he placed it in his jacket pocket.

At the funeral, as he was finishing the message, he realized that he was wearing the same jacket that he was wearing when Fred died. He said, “You know, Fred handed me a note just before he died. I haven’t looked at it, but knowing Fred, I’m sure there’s a word of inspiration there for us all.” 

He opened the note, and read, “You’re standing on my oxygen tube!”

I don’t believe it

Sometimes you have to stop and throw your hands up. In a moment I want to make some comments about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but first I want to scream at the screen “WHY?” Not “WHY?” about the earthquake, tsunami, suffering and death but about this news story:


British bureaucracy has prevented a team of rescue experts from helping out. I hope we are proud.

OK, rant over.

So what are we to make of what has happened? Well the first thing to say is that if it does not drive us to our knees in lament and intercession there is something seriously wrong. One of the things that evangelicals seem to have lost in our search for certainty is the ability to lament to God and tell him exactly how we feel. He is big enough to take our questions, our doubts, our anger and all the rest of the things churning around within us in the face of such devastation. Have you told him?

The second is to point out that God is not immune from suffering either. He experienced devastating emotional pain when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in the face of his impending separation from his eternal relationship with his Father. God experienced bereavement when Jesus cried out “It is finished!” and died. And God is not remote and watching us from a distance. He loves every single person on this planet.

So how could he allow this to happen? Surely if he loved those people in Japan he would have saved them? This is taking us into the deep and dark language of theodicy – how come a benevolent omnipotent God allows evil things to happen? I believe that in the immediate aftermath of such a disaster these questions need to be articulated honestly but not necessarily answered. Short answers can seem trite and unsatisfactory and longer answers are irrelevant when prayers need praying and action needs taking.

This does not mean that there are no answers. There are clues towards them in Jesus’ death and resurrection (hope in the face of death); in the good that rises in the face of evil (such as the intention of the rescue team in the story above); in the way that the world has to be to allow free will and the possibility of human rebellion; in the sin of people that leads to disastrous decisions (building a slum in an area prone to landslides because it is the only cheap land around); in evil as a cosmic force not just a personal problem…

There are no easy answers, which is why it is often called a ‘mystery’.

The nature of God as seen in Jesus in the face of suffering leads me back to him rather than to answers. When crowds of suffering people came to him, Jesus ‘had compassion’ on them. In Greek the word is ‘splanchizomai’. It describes a physical gut-level response. Jesus was affected by human suffering. He still is. God is far from indifferent to human suffering. He does not have an easy answer to the problem either.

I know how you feel

Empathy is a very powerful thing. It is more than sympathy (where we express how we feel about something that has happened) although that is powerful itself. Empathy is where we are able to feel how someone else feels. We can’t know exactly how anyone feels, but when we are able to be empathic we feel some of what they are going through. Sometimes it is almost physical!

I was with someone yesterday who was very upset because they had had something (a possession) stolen. At first I was disappointed for them and didn’t want them to be upset. I was also annoyed that someone had made them sad. Then I began to feel sad myself. I was upset because of the person’s loss and sadness. I don’t know whether it helped them but because I felt some of their sadness it made my praying more real, somehow.

It reminded me of a couple of lines we will be singing a lot in about 2 months’ time:

And he feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.

(Once in Royal David’s City)

Because he has experienced human life we can be confident that Jesus knows how we feel. It’s not that he is distant or remote and is unable to know us inside out anyway, but we know that he has been there too. He empathises!

The theft took place at a school and while I was with the person I tried to make them feel better by telling them my experience of having something stolen at school. It was during a PE lesson. When I got back to the changing room I found that my trousers had been stolen!

Very thoughtfully the PE teacher, when I told him what had happened, gave me some banana-yellow tracksuit trousers from the lost property box (eurgh! – at the colour and the lost property box) and made me go around all of the classrooms asking if anyone had my trousers. I can’t imagine them owning up and it did not make me feel good. I cycled home (in my orange waterproof overtrousers) and told my Mum what had happened while I went and retrieved a spare pair of school trousers. Mum was not happy with what the school had done and I will leave the rest of the story to your imagination. Not sure how much empathy there was!

guilty pleasures

I was waiting under my umbrella in the pouring rain a little earlier and had a crisis of conscience. Across the road from me I noticed a lady crouched on the ground. She had an umbrella but it was lying upside down on the pavement. She was getting drenched and rummaging in a bag. I was just deciding to go over the road an see if she was alright when I saw a cloud of what I thought was steam and it seemed from my limited view that she had just poured out a cup of hot beverage from a flask. She then stood up and I could see that she was not in distress at all, she had just lit a cigarette.

She picked up her umbrella (I was surprised it was not full of water) and staggered off along the road. I wondered why she was staggering and looked down at her feet. She was wearing 3 inch high wedge shoes, held on by just a single strap across her toes (a little like the shoe in the picture on the right). They were probably not the best shoes to be wearing in the rain, but they were letting her down very badly.

I imagine that normally friction would keep her feet in the correct part of the shoe, and that she had started wearing the shoes today in the bright sunshine with which the day began. However the soles of her feet were now wet and gravity was doing its thing. Her feet were sliding down the slope of the shoe and through the strap at the front so the front half of her feet were hanging over the front of the shoe and landing on the pavement. Every couple of steps she tried to rectify the problem but her feet kept slipping back down and through the front. To make things worse (and yes they could get worse!) she then decided to run, with her feet stuck through the front of the shoe.

I wanted to shout across the road to suggest that she simply take her shoes off, but did not do so for two reasons. One was cowardice – I did not know how she would react to the suggestion – the other was that I was trying hard not to laugh. I felt really bad for her that she was having such a bad time of it, but it all seemed so comical.

If you are that lady I do feel really bad for you and hope you got home safely and are now warm and dry. I am sorry that I found it so funny and had to lower my umbrella in front of my face in order that you would not be able to see my face.

Just after this an old man came out of the pub in front of which I was standing. He was wearing a camouflage hat, which only served to make him stand out in the street. As he emerged into the rain he grumbled audibly at the weather. I noticed that he had a walking stick on which he was leaning each time he took a step.

As he walked along he saw an empty cigarette packet lying on the pavement and, smooth as you like, he whacked it with his stick into the gutter. At this point I think he noticed me and looked at me triumphantly.

I was not sure how to respond. Should I have applauded enthusiastically? Should I have nodded nonchalantly at him to acknowledge his skill? I did nothing. I was bemused and simply managed the slightest of head movements and then a look away.

There are no obvious social conventions to cover either of these situations. No etiquette books will tell me what to do (despite the title of this book I saw on Amazon). I am left to decide what to do myself and then reflect on whether or not I did the right thing and feel guilty about finding one person’s rotten experiences funny and failing to acknowledge the joy of another.

Perhaps the Biblical etiquette helps – to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It’s all about empathy – not just having it but expressing it.

If faced with the same situations again I would like to think I could have shouted some encouragement to the lady across the road (or even gone over and asked if she was alright) and could at least have managed a “good shot!” for the chap who hit the cigarette packet so successfully.