the paper thingy

Recently, at a Christmas do, some friends of ours gave me this present:

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If you have never seen one before you may be wondering what it is. I certainly was. It had started its life as a strip, looking a bit like a paper garland. Then our friend opened it out and stuck the edges together to make this 3D object.

Any guesses yet? Some sort of artistic paper sculpture?

Let me rotate it (to save you turning your screen upside down).IMG_0208

Does this help? Is it some sort of paper vase (not very practical admittedly). How about if I turn it on its side?

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Perhaps it’s some sort of large paper shuttlecock or missile? I discovered you can open it out by pulling together one of the ends.IMG_0210

Maybe it’s some sort of paper fruit bowl? Not very stable though. I had no other ideas so our friends told us. It’s a hat!IMG_0211IMG_0212

It only really becomes a hat when you pull it onto your head. Until that moment it becomes a curious object.

It’s the same with the Christian faith. It only really comes to life when you put it on, when you start to live it. It’s not about adopting a religion or following rules or even going to church! It’s about entering into a relationship with God. You may have lots of other ideas about it until that moment when you take a step of faith you won’t experience it in all its fullness.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

faith in a spin?

Today I put my faith in the weather forecast. It told me that although it was going to be very cloudy it was not going to rain and there would be a good breeze.

‘Perfect,’ I thought, ‘just right for doing some loads of washing.’

Stop sniggering.

So I put a load of washing in the machine, keeping one eye on the looming black clouds.

Stop giggling.

Then, when the machine had finished its cycle I hung out the washing to dry. Outside.

washing lineMeanwhile the clouds got darker and more ominous-looking. So I put another load of washing in the machine.

Stop chortling.

Then, when that was finished and hung out I put the rest of the washing in the machine. I ignored the moisture in the air.

Stop laughing.

No, seriously, stop laughing. Because it didn’t rain. The ominous clouds dispersed and now the sun is coming out. The washing is drying well in the breeze.

I began the day by wondering whether it would be worth doing some washing. I knew that it was needed. Then I did my research into the weather, checking out forecasts that were specifically for our town. Based on that research I decided that it looked like a good day to do some washing, even though looking at the sky you would have reached the opposite conclusion. I trusted the weather forecast.

But if all I did was trust the weather forecast the washing would still be sitting in the washing bin. I had to do something with my trust. I had to put it into action. That’s faith.

Some people reckon having faith means that you bypass your brain and take a leap into the unknown. That’s not what I have experienced.

Faith is putting the washing out on an ominously cloudy day because you trust the weather forecast. Of course there are a lot more reliable things and people in whom we can put our faith than a weather forecast but it’s the same process.

Faith is what happens when you take your research, your experience, your understanding, your hopes, your dream, your needs and your intelligence, blend them all together and then act on them.

Be blessed, be a blessing

the parable of the lovely notebook

Is it just me, or do others really enjoy having a new notebook or diary (if you still use a paper one)? There’s something attractive about having a notebook with crisp, pristine pages. I love it. I anticipate what I will use it for. I make myself promises that I won’t scribble or cross things out. I will only ever use nice pens to write in the book, and I will always use my best writing.

Recently for my birthday some kind friends of mine bought me this notebook.

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It was made in Italy and it’s got a lovely leather cover with that leather strap to keep it closed. It’s got my initials embossed on the front. The paper is lovely quality. I love it.

The only problem is that I haven’t used it yet. The book is too nice just to be used for taking phone messages or reminders.I want it to be used for something important and special. I want it to contain things that I will want to come back to and look over again in the future. I don’t want to spoil it with scruffy, rushed notes, or with poor quality handwriting, or with scratchy pens.

So the book is still in pristine condition.

But it’s not being used. It’s not able to fulfil its purpose. It’s being denied the opportunity to do all that it was created to be and do because I am concerned that it will not be used in the way that it deserves to be used.

Do we sometimes deny ourselves, or others, an opportunity to try something and to grow and flourish from it because we are afraid?

Do we sometimes forget that we have been given gifts, skills and personality in order to bless, delight and encourage others and keep them to ourselves instead?

Do we want to protect people or ourselves from harm and thus avoid taking any risks?

I have an idea of what to do with the book. I have resolved to use it.

What about you?

Be blessed, be a blessing

the lost ring

wedding ring

This is my wedding ring. Actually it’s the ring Sally gave me when we got engaged: I had given her an engagement ring and I too wanted an engagement ring in order to show everyone I was engaged to her. For our wedding she got it engraved with the date of the wedding so that it would become my wedding ring. 1-7-89.

No, cynical peeps, the date was not there in case I forgot it. It’s a date that is engraved in my mind – I counted down towards it for about 6 months in my diary! The date is purely there to show the change of use.

The observant among you will have noticed that I have a different, much chunkier, gold band on my wedding finger. The reason for that can be seen if you look closely at the ‘9’ in ’89’ inside the ring. Eventually the ring cracked and broke. I wore it out! So we got a second, chunkier wedding ring to replace it and the original was put in a safe place. I had planned that one day I would get it restored.

The problem is that as time passed I completely forgot where that safe place was. I thought it was in my bedside cabinet, but even though I have emptied it several times and looked inside every place and container inside the drawers (and behind the drawers) it wasn’t there. I looked in Sally’s bedside cabinet as she has some precious things in there – some of our children’s milk teeth that were returned to us by the Tooth Fairy (in case our children read this and are worried); letters and poems that I have written to her over the years and other things that have no intrinsic value but lots of sentimental value. I thought that probably my old wedding ring would have been in there with those things. But no, it wasn’t there either.

I had even resorted to asking Sally to look for it – she is the looker in our house – but she couldn’t find it. So we assumed that somehow it had been lost in one of the house moves or accidentally thrown out in one of our tidying sessions. I forgot all about it.

Until today.

I was rummaging in one of the sets of drawers in my study – looking for a bulldog clip – when I noticed a section in an organising tray in the bottom of the drawer that had been covered over by a piece of debris. When I lifted it up I was thrilled to see my old wedding ring!

Wooo Hooo!

It’s not because it is very valuable (although as Sally was a student when she bought it for me it was relatively expensive).

It’s not because it proves that I am married to Sally. I have almost 27 years of being together with her, two wonderful children and lots of people who know that we are married to show that.

It’s because it was given to me by her at that special moment when we were wed and when it had gone missing that link to that amazing day had vanished. The value was in the giver and what the gift represented. It meant so much to me.

Some people treat their faith a bit like that ring. It was really important at first. It meant something. Perhaps you were baptised. But over time it became a bit tarnished and perhaps even was a bit damaged by other people or circumstances and eventually, rather than getting it restored, it got put in a safe place and forgotten about.

And then, when you least expect it, perhaps when you have forgotten about it, you rediscover it. You find that it had been nearby all the time. God hadn’t gone anywhere, but you’d had been looking in the wrong place. He’s just been waiting for you.

I am going to get the ring restored now. It is going to be made as good as new.

How about you?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

doubt that is bigger than ants

antA while back I remember reading a little phrase that stuck with me because it needed to be mulled and pondered and reflected on: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Apparently it was Frederick Buechner who wrote that in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.

I found it amusing, and then a little bit provocative. Does doubt really keep faith alive and moving? Do we actually need doubt to help keep our faith vibrant? And I am not just talking about Christian faith here, but whatever or whoever it is in we put our faith. You see, if we doubt then we question and if we question then we explore and if we explore then we find new vistas, new ways of thinking about what we believe, new understanding, and perhaps even new / renewed faith. If we have no doubts we have no need to question. I think that is what Buechner is trying to tell us.

However I don’t think that ‘ants in the pants’ is enough. That suggests a sort of irritant, something that makes you uncomfortable, something that makes you squirm. Doubt can be like that, but big doubt, real doubt, foundation-shaking doubt can be dark, all-embracing and menacing. It can be the monster under the bed ready to torment and keep you awake. It can be a highly corrosive acid that eats away the flesh. It can be the black ice on the journey of faith that causes a multiple vehicle pileup.

This is the sort of ‘is there really a God?’ or ‘how can God be like that?’ type of doubt that causes faith to scream in pain and won’t be placated by patronising platitudes. It’s the sort of doubt that demands answers. It’s the sort of doubt that can make or break faith.

If you are experiencing that sort of doubt then you need a few things to help you deal with it.

You need good friends who will support you without judging as you work things through.

You need space and time to explore things properly.

You need grace to be able to explore previously-held beliefs and see whether they still hold true.

You need be determined to persevering through the difficult terrain.

You need to want to come through the doubt (some people prefer to wallow in it).

If you are a Christian I suggest that you spend time looking again at Jesus in the gospels and see what he has to say about faith and doubt.

And, whether or not you call it ‘prayer’ you need to seek wisdom ‘above’ to help you discern truth from lies.

It’s the sort of experience that John of the Cross called the ‘dark night of the soul’. It’s an experience that strips away a faith that we have received but not owned, that dis-empowers our own futile attempts to get to know God on our own terms and provokes within us a desire for a deeper, simpler intimacy with God. Those who have been through it, endured and emerged find that their faith is deepened, stronger and somehow much more relevant to life. It is something lived rather than something thought, it is something experienced rather than something understood. And such a faith enables us to hold faith and doubt in tension.

I think that faith and doubt are siblings – two responses to the innate human suspicion that there is more to life than simply ‘me’. In the Bible Jesus was asked by a desperate father to heal his son. In response to Jesus nudging him in the direction of faith the father exclaimed: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) The siblings are both present as the father wrestled with the reality of a son whose affliction was incurable and was causing him to injure himself and the possibility that Jesus could heal him but what if he didn’t and yet he has healed others…

That’s honest faith. That’s faith that has been wrestling with doubt and has just about emerged victorious but bruised and scarred.

If you are experiencing doubts I hope and pray that beyond a search for answers you will find truth, hope, peace and love.

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.

every cloud has a watery lining

Today I was supposed to be going to a meeting. But the situation changed unexpectedly this morning and I have been unable to go to the meeting. I am frustrated and disappointed about that as it sounds like it would have been a really good occasion. But the change in circumstances as a result of this morning’s unexpected event means that now I have a little more time to catch up on admin and do some preparation that I was struggling to find space for. It’s not so much that every cloud has a silver lining so much as making the most of a situation.

dark-cloud-1539729“Every cloud has a silver lining” is a bizarre idiomatic proverb. It’s certainly not literally true. On the occasions when I have been in an aeroplane and it is flowing through a cloud it just goes grey and watery, not shiny and silvery. You can imagine that if it was literally silver inside by now we would be mining clouds! Who was it who first coined the phrase? (You can find some references to it here).

The problem is that even if you take the proverb in its metaphorical sense it’s still not true. Things don’t always turn out all right. Sometimes good does not come out of bad. Sometimes the bumper sticker is right (even if it’s not very eloquent): s#*t happens.

When you read some of the Psalms in the Bible the psalmist is going through dark times and there is no light at the end of the tunnel (not even the light of an oncoming train). And Jesus never promised anybody an easy ride for following him. In fact he suggested exactly the opposite was true: if you follow him you can expect persecution, opposition and s#*t happening.

So, you might be wondering, what’s the point? What do we gain from following Jesus, trying to live a life that pleases God and ending up getting persecuted?

The first thing (and you often find this in the Psalms) is a recognition that God is with us even in the darkest Valley. Everybody in this world experiences dark times but an awareness that God is with you, whilst it might not make things brighter, is a reassurance. Jesus gives us his Spirit who is with us whatever we go through and who can interpret the deepest groans of our being that we are unable to articulate and turn them into prayer.

Furthermore the Bible teaches us that stuff is not the most important thing in this life. Stuff breaks, rots, corrodes, becomes obsolete and loses value. Even money is finite and elusive. We leave this world as we came into it (I don’t necessarily mean naked and crying): empty-handed. But there is more to life than stuff and money and even more to life than living. I do believe in life before death but I also believe in life after death. That faith, hope, and expectation means that whilst I might struggle to find a silver lining inside a cloud I know that beyond the clouds is the brightest sunlight.

Be blessed, be a blessing

extending the warranty

The delivery was better than this!
The delivery was better than this!

We recently had to buy a fridge freezer and I was rather taken aback as we were buying it to be offered an extended warranty. Didn’t they think it was going to last? And it had a sticker on it saying that there was an extended manufacturer’s warranty on it.

So I didn’t buy the extended warranty.

And then I phoned the manufacturer to register for the extended warranty. They told me that this only covered parts, not the labour of the repair man, or the call out fee, or the cost of bits that broke from wear and tear (like freezer drawers). So would I like to take out an extra extended warranty that covered these things too?

When I commented that it did not seem to show much faith in the quality of their product the lady with whom I was talking didn’t really know what to say (it was off her script!).

I did not take out the extra extended warranty.

Since then I have had a letter from the shop I bought the fridge freezer from, just to let me know that although there was a one year warranty on the product I could extend that warranty (for five years for about a third of the cost of the fridge freezer!).

And then I had an email from the shop with the subject line: “We hope you’re happy with your Fridge-Freezer”

That’s nice, I thought. What lovely customer service.

Then I read the text in the body of the email:

We hope you’re happy with your Fridge-Freezer and we’re sure that the last thing you want to think about is something going wrong.

However it’s only when things go wrong that you discover how limited a standard manufacturer’s guarantee can be. Not only does it tend to run out just when you need it, but it usually only protects you for technical faults. This means you might be left exposed in the case of a breakdown or damage, and you could be left with the cost and hassle of organising repairs or buying a replacement.

Not ‘if’ things go wrong, but ‘when’!

Do they really have so little faith in the products they sell? Or is it more that they make a lot of money out of extended warranties because they have faith in the products and so few people claim on them?

Am I being cynical?

Maybe.

Am I going to take out an extended warranty?

Nope. In fact the more they tell me I need one the more I am going to resist!

Of course churches would never do that would we? No, I don’t mean selling extended warranties. But do we inadvertently give out the erroneous message that if you give more, do more, attend more than you are a better Christian and God will look more favourably on you?

And do we sometimes convey that we do not have faith in God when we say that people should pray and immediately insert the hideous caveat that if he doesn’t answer the prayer it’s not his fault because you didn’t have enough faith? We might not say it, but do we sometimes imply it or could people infer it from how we pray?

Following Jesus is so much more than buying a fridge freezer (with or without extended warranty). But being so much more does not mean that we need to make it complicated. He simply invited people to follow him. Churches are the ones who have added all of the extras!

Yes,answers to prayer are more nuanced than we give God credit for, but this episode from my past is a constant reminder of the order we should do things – pray first, not as a last resort!

mostly armless

Not quite my what my office chair looks like (there's no spotlight!)
Not quite my what my office chair looks like (there’s no spotlight!)

When I was a teenager I had a computer game called ‘Elite’. It was a space-based game in which you flew your space ship around a Universe with thousands of planets – trading, bounty-hunting, asteroid-mining, pirating and other space-related activity. It was astonishing just how much the programmers crammed into 48k of memory.

Yes, young people, 48k. Not 48 MB or 48GB. 48k. Just so you know, a MB is 1000k.

When you began playing the game you would be classified as ‘harmless’. After a while, when you had successfully defended yourself against attackers or had dealt with some bad guys you became classified as ‘mostly harmless’… and so on until you became ‘Elite’.

They’ve recently reissued ‘Elite’ on a much, much grander scale and while it is very enjoyable and far more complex (it is linked to t’internet so you can play with / against other people around the world) it perhaps lacks the charm of the wire frame graphics squeezed into 48k of Random Access Memory.

So why did I call this bloggage ‘mostly armless’? Well the thought came from my office chair. It has arms that attach to the back and seat. Over the years the covering on the arms has become a bit worn and frayed and even Duct Tape can’t successfully repair them (I know, amazing isn’t it!). I recently took them off in order to see if I could repair them more easily like that and the back of the chair didn’t fall off. So I decided to see how well the back is secured to the seat.

It’s well-secured with heavy duty bolts.

So I decided to see if I could operate without the arms for a while. From a Health and Safety at work point of view it must be causing serious headaches because I am not now following the manufacturer’s instructions (bad) yet my chair does not have arms so can fit better under the desk (good). I will keep checking the heavy duty bolts to make sure it is not going to fall apart.

Without the arms I have discovered a freedom. I can get onto the chair much more easily. It will slide under my desk completely so can be pushed out of the way better (in my cramped space). My arms hand down at the correct angle for typing on my keyboard so my posture is better.

And I have also discovered that there are phantom arms. I keep trying to push on them to sit up straight. I keep trying to grab hold of them to turn the chair around.

I know that I will adapt to the new mostly armless chair. I think I prefer it. But it does feel strange – almost like a new chair.

Christians talk about how God’s Spirit is changing us. He is slowly but surely working on our character, personality, thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, behaviour to help us to become more like the people God created us to be. We’re all a work-in-progress. But sometimes he asks us to make more radical changes.

It might be scary. It might feel strange. It might be risky. It might be unorthodox. But if we trust him, it will bring freedom.

So if you have been putting off being baptised, you have been avoiding talking to that person about your faith, you have been holding back from trying out your gifts, you’ve been resisting renewing your relationship with Jesus, you have stopped going to church and find it difficult to go back, and you know what God’s Spirit is prompting you to do about it, I would encourage you to go for it. Ask some of your friends to pray for you as you do it and take off those arms.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

wait for it

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Are you any good at waiting?

Are a patient person, or do you get frustrated when your plans are delayed?

Do you see a red light (or even an amber one) as an opportunity to stop, admire the view, and do some thinking or do you see it as an imposition and an irritation – drumming your fingers on the steering wheel until the light turns green?

Do you find waiting easy, even when things are out of your control, or do you want to do all you can to expedite matters?

In the Bible there’s a verse which in some translations says, “those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength…” (Isaiah 40:31). In my translation it says, “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength…” [my italics]. The first translation made me wonder whether it was about waiting on heavenly tables and getting a tip from God!

Why the difference? The Hebrew word that is variously translated as ‘wait’ and ‘hope’ has different meanings and nuances all contained in the same word. It can mean ‘hope in a certain outcome’; ‘waiting patiently’; and ‘resting trustingly’ and in fact all three aspects are right. As a teenager we had a labrador dog called Bonnie. We used to balance a dog biscuit on Bonnie’s nose and tell her to wait. She would look at us pleadingly as she waited for the instruction to eat it. She would also drool, which was often an encouragement to us to allow her to have the biscuit before we drowned in drool. But she waited expectantly / hopefully / trustingly / patiently.

People who are expectant, patient and trusting in their relationship with God are promised renewed strength. It’s as if we keep putting on fresh strength like we put on fresh clothes daily. The strength is not specifically physical, it is the strength to persevere, to rise above life’s difficulties and problems, to keep going despite the odds. It’s an unnatural strength.

It’s the strength seen in people whose faith in Jesus puts their life in danger yet they refuse to deny that faith. It’s the strength shown by those who faith in God is mocked and ridiculed by others who do not share it.

When my children were a lot younger when they got tired we would carry them. We would tell them to hold on, and they would hold on tight, but actually they were held anyway. Waiting / expecting / hoping / trusting / resting in God is like that – we hold on to him in faith while, whether or not we are aware of it, we are held.

Be blessed, be a blessing