evicted

Emergency ExitToday is my eviction anniversary*. 48 years ago I was unceremoniously evicted from the comforting, nurturing, nourishing place I had spent the first 9 months of my existence into a cold, bright, noisy environment that I had never imagined existed. I don’t think I wanted to leave the womb-warmth – which may explain why most babies start crying soon after they emerge.

But so much has happened for me since that I am rather glad that I was evicted (and I am sure my Mum was!). It may have been somewhat traumatic at the time (for me and my mother) but that trauma has been followed by growth, learning, friendship, love, companionship, excitement, sadness, distress, struggles and so much more. I have gone from the relative comfort of monochrome existence to the astonishing experience of beyond-high-definition multi-coloured life with more pixels than you can imagine and billions of colours and shades.

How often is that true for us? We like our comfort zones, our security blankets, our safety. Change threatens that security and we cannot be sure that it will be better so we often prefer to stay where we are than risk an unknown future. Yet, there is so much more to experience of life. If we stay in the womb we won’t experience all of that.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Thank you to so many of you for your birthday greetings, that means a lot to me.

storming the weather

Let’s face it, we Brits are obsessed with the weather. It’s one of the default subjects of conversation, it often makes headline news and we are avid amateur meteorologists with our own ways of predicting what the weather will be.

One of the ancient legends is about St Swithin’s Day:

‘St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.’

The theory is that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day (15th July) it will rain for the next 40 days. Analysis of weather patterns has proved this to be incorrect. This week we have been told that we have had the coldest Spring in 50 years, and the fifth coldest since 1910. Global Warming (ironically) is among the causes that are being blamed for this unusual weather. I don’t pretend to understand it all, but there is no doubt in my mind that human activity has adversely affected our climate and that we will have to get used to different weather patterns as a result. It may be that in years to come the St Swithin’s Day forecasting method becomes more accurate.

If you want one of these weather stones, click on the image to go to a website that will sell you a personalised one.

One of the things that annoys me about our weather forecasts on TV is the amount of time devoted to telling us what the weather has been and what it is right now. We know what it has been. And all we have to do is look out of the window to know what it is doing right now. We want to know what it will be like. You might as well use one of these high-tech weather forecasting stones (which are available to buy – click on the picture to go to the website).

It has been said that it is not that the weather is wrong, it is that we wear the wrong clothes for the weather. That may be so, but it does help if the weather forecast can be consistent enough for us to be able to put the right clothes on. How often do we find ourselves ill-equipped for the weather – thick jumpers on days that turn out to be hot, t-shirts and shorts when it starts pouring down with rain.

Jesus seems to have had a lot to say about the future (paraphrased by me): don’t worry about tomorrow, worrying won’t change anything; prepare as well as you can for what you expect to happen; you may not know what the future holds, but you can know the one who holds the future.

Trusting God for the future is not as easy as it sounds. It’s not a case of sitting back and waiting for whatever happens, because we have a life to be lived to the full. And it’s not a case of being a control freak and then blaming God when our plans fail. There’s a delicate balance that we need to find, and I think it comes from a close walk with God. He’s not someone to be consulted occasionally: he wants to be involved in our lives – a partnership, a relationship. The more we involve him in our lives, the easier it is to trust him and to sense what he wants us to do. The more I have trusted him in the past (and he has come through for me) the easier it is to trust him now and in the future.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

To tell the weather, Go to your back door and look for the dog.

If the dog is at the door and he is wet, it’s probably raining. But if the dog is standing there really soaking wet, it is probably raining really hard.

If the dog’s fur looks like it’s been rubbed the wrong way, it’s probably windy.

If the dog has snow on his back, it’s probably snowing.

Of course, to be able to tell the weather like this, you have to leave the dog outside all the time, especially if you expect bad weather.

Sincerely,

The CAT

om nom nom nom nom

There are many things that populate the surface of my desk. There are post-it notes with telephone messages, pieces of paper with ideas and spider-grams and scrawlings. There are letters awaiting reply. There are various bits of stationery and equipment. And there are many books.

First and foremost is my bible: without which I would be lost. Then there are books that help me understand my Bible. There are books that I use to help me plan services. There are books that I use for my own reflections and time with God. And there are books that I am reading to further my understanding and brought my awareness. And there is a pile of books that are waiting to be read.

One of my ambitions is to be able to be in a position where the height of the pile will diminish. This requires a certain amount of discipline on my part to set aside time to read, reflect and pray. With all of the busyness that being a minister entails it is very easy for this time to be squeezed out. I can find myself seeing it as a luxury or an indulgence and justifying not reading books because I’m spending time doing “proper ministry”.

But unless I am being fed I am going to struggle to feed others. Unless I’m being nurtured I will find it difficult to nurture others. You can only give somebody something that you already have. when I returned from my sabbatical leave I was full: I had spent 3 months reading, reflecting, praying and being fed and nurtured. and unless I am regularly replenishing myself eventually the well will run dry.

In case you’re interested the books that are currently ‘on the go’ are: How God Became King (Tom Wright); Real Scientists Real Faith (Ed RJ Berry); and Christ in the Wilderness (Stephen Cottrell). There is a substantial queue waiting to be the next in line!

How and where do you get fed?

Be blessed, be a blessing

I think I’ve used this joke before but it’s relevant to today’s theme:

bible genesisA collector of rare books ran into an acquaintance who told him he had just thrown away an old Bible that he found in a dusty, old box. He happened to mention that Gluten-somebody-or-other had printed it.

“Not Gutenberg?” gasped the collector.

“Yes, that was it!”

“You idiot! You’ve thrown away one of the first books ever printed. A copy recently sold at auction for half a million dollars!”

“Oh, I don’t think this book would have been worth anything close to that much,” replied the man. “It was scribbled all over in the margins by some guy named Martin Luther.”

Post the second

This post was inspired by a story told to us by the inspirational Bishop Stephen Cottrell. It reminded me of a parenting moment from long ago.

Our son was about 4 and woke up in the middle of the night, crying. I tried to pretend that I couldn’t hear him but Sally could sense I was awake and kicked me out of bed anyway. I stumbled into Thomas’s bedroom and asked him what was wrong.

“My foot hurts.”

I diagnosed cramp and tried to do the things I could remember my Mum doing for me when I was Thomas’s age and had cramp. I rubbed his foot, I stroked his head, I flexed his foot, I even put his Thomas the Tank Engine socks on him. None of it made any difference.

I am not at my best in the middle of the night. I was tired, I was unhappy at being awake and frustrated that nothing I was doing was making any difference and I could see a looong night looming ahead of me.

Frustratedly I asked, as gently as I could, “What do you want me to do?”

His little voice answered, “Why don’t you ask God to make it better?

Now I had two problems. Not only was I tired and unhappy but now as a dad and a Minister I had to work out how to explain to a four year-old that God doesn’t always answer prayers in the way that we want. I am a man of great faith!

In the end, because my faith is so strong, I reasoned that I could pray first and that would give me time to work out what to say.

I prayed something like this: “Dear God, please make Thomas’s foot better and help him have a good night’s sleep. Amen.” (The real but unspoken prayer was, “I want to go back to bed.”)

The little voice from the bed said, “Amen.”

Then Thomas rolled over, snuggled down and went to sleep.

And I slunk back to bed having learnt a lot about prayer and faith.

A wise person once said, “Unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a child you will never enter it.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

faith is a joke*

Stop right there! Please don’t start lobbing rocks (literal or metaphorical) just yet. Please read on and then decide whether what I have written has any merit. The title of this bloggage is a bit mischievous. It is open to misunderstanding, yes. But it was designed to get your attention, and it did, didn’t it? It’s my little joke.

What I mean is that some people declare that there is a problem with (Christian) faith because it is unprovable. You can’t distil God in a laboratory. You can’t prove him by mathematics. And that causes problems for people who like empirical proof. You can’t prove it, so it must be wrong.

So why is Christian faith a joke? Well, perhaps if I was being honest I should have made the bloggage title a simile: Christian faith is like a joke.

You see a joke is funny because it is. There is something within it that we find inherently amusing. It may be the element of surprise, dissonance with the norm, a clever word-play and so on.

You can analyse a joke. You can dissect it and see how it is constructed: the set up, the punch line and so on. You can decide what genre of joke it belongs to. You can count the number of letters or words. You can look through history to see whether or when it has been told before. You can analyse the level of laughter it causes. But you can’t prove that a joke will be funny. It may have all the right elements but still not be funny. And sometimes a joke will be funny because it breaks all the rules, which is why computer-generated jokes probably won’t work as well as those generated by comedians.

But when you do analyse a joke it loses some of its joke-ness. You can still appreciate it aesthetically, even be impressed by its clever construction, but it will never be as funny. And if you spend your time analysing jokes you miss the point of them. They are meant to make us laugh, to look at ourselves and the world from a different perspective, they are meant to amuse, entertain and be funny. Treating them to scientific rigour is missing the point.

And that’s where the similarity with faith comes. Yes you can analyse what we believe. You can consider the psychology or philosophy behind faith. You can look at faith in human history. You can do all sorts of tests on it. But if you do you are missing the point. Faith, like a joke, is to be engaged with personally not analysed in a lab.

If you ask someone why a particular joke makes them laugh they may not be able to explain why in a manner that satisfies investigative rigour… it just does.  It resonates with them. If you ask a Christian believer why they believe they may not be able to explain why in a manner that satisfies investigative rigour… they just do. It resonates with them. Like a joke, faith is more than the sum of its parts, it is about meaning in the same way that a joke is about laughter or music and art is about transcendence*.

So please can we step aside from the petty and pointless ‘science vs religion’ debates and arguments that are selling so many books? They are about point-scoring not truth-discovering and often seem to work on the basis of inaccurate summaries and caricatures rather than engagement with real people.

Please can we stop being disrespectful to people who do not believe in God, or to those who do?

Please can we stop feeling intellectually superior or spiritually smug about others?

Please let’s not stop discussing these things.

And please let’s not stop analysing and exploring the components of faith (or jokes). However, please let’s use the appropriate tools for the job – not using the scalpel of science when what is needed is the nutcracker of faith; not using the sledgehammer of faith when what is needed is the spanner of science.

Please can we simply be allowed to talk about what we believe and be as passionate and persuasive as we like but recognise that the other person / people may be equally passionate and persuasive about what they believe. This is not an argument for relativism or pluralism, but for respect.

My faith makes sense to me. I find that it stands up to the scrutiny of my conscience and my intellect. My experience of Jesus is foundational to my life. My faith in Jesus motivates me to want to tell others about him because I believe that my life is better with him and I believe that there is a life beyond this world that is open to all who choose it and I want others to have that too. I will be as persuasive and passionate about that as I can. But I won’t force someone else to believe it, I won’t stop being friends with someone who does not share it, I will not condemn someone who cannot accept it, I will respect those who don’t understand it or say it has not proof behind it. Even though I disagree with them.

Faith is like a joke because it has that intangible something that adds something to our life and takes us into the transcendent: something that dies if you dissect it.

Funny that!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

(This bloggage was written on 19th October but posted the following week while I am on retreat. The timing may seem to be cowardice, but it was mainly because it came to me while I was at home and I wanted to write it down before I forgot it and then thought I would send it into the world wide web while I am away on retreat so that those who actually enjoy my blog (you know who you both are) don’t feel too bereft in my absence).

*If you find the simile too disrespectful, I think the same process and simile works just as well for music or even art.

coin-cidentally speaking

Regular bloggites may have gathered that I like gadgets. I love to see and experience changes in technology, marvel at innovation and see how these change the way I carry out tasks.

One of my favourite gadgets is very simple in concept, clever in the way it carries out the task and effective in achieving the desired outcome. It’s a coin sorter. Yes, you did read that right. It’s a coin sorter.

There is something wonderfully satisfying about the mechanics involved. Let me try to describe the process to you. Coins are dropped into the hopper at the top. Inside an inclined platform with ridges to catch the coins rotates (driven by a battery-powered motor). As the platform rotates coins slide into the ridges and as it rotates they slide outwards and down onto a slope that travels all the way around the outside of the sorter. At even points around the outside are slots of differing sizes, through which the different coins will drop into tubes that receive the different denominations of coin.

Now that is clear you will understand why it is such an enjoyable gadget to use. The simple mechanism is elegant and effective. The ‘trundle… thunk’ as coins travel along the slope and drop into the tubes is immensely satisfying. So far I have not had a single coin drop into the wrong tube and I have had it since February.

Of course my description of the coin sorter does not do it justice. It would have been better to have shown you a video of it in action, but my WordPress package does not include the ability to upload video. You can see a similar one in action here on YouTube.

But even that does not do justice to actually experiencing it in action and having the machine sort your own coins for you.

When I was at the vicar-factory I can remember studying the Sociology of Religion. I was sceptical about it because it seemed to be an analysis of faith at a superficial level. Indeed that is one of the criticisms I have of many of the humanist / atheistic critiques of the Christian faith – they seem to exist at a superficial, theoretical level that does not do justice to my experience. I understood why when I read a book that contained this analogy.

If you look at a stained glass window from outside you can see some of the shapes and images. You get an idea of the colours, and if the lights are on inside the church you may even get an idea of the beauty. But you can only fully appreciate a stained-glass window from inside. Until you enter the church and see from inside what it is like you will never fully appreciate it.

And I think the coin sorter is of a similar order (if less spectacular). You only fully appreciate it when you use it.

And it is the same with the Christian Faith. Unless you experience it for yourself you will never fully appreciate it, understand it or even simply ‘get it’. You can only do that when you surrender to God and allow him to be the most important in your life. You can analyse all you want, work out all the arguments for and against, even attend church your whole life, but until you say ‘yes’ to God you won’t be able to experience it. That’s why we call it ‘faith’ – it takes a step of faith to take all that you know, all that you have seen in others, all that you have understood about God and say ‘yes’.

If that’s true, how does it affect the way you (and your church) relate to those around you?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Portsmouth, Rhode Island, USA: Police charged Gregory Rosa, 25, with a string of vending machine robberies in January when he: 1. fled from police inexplicably when they spotted him loitering around a vending machine and 2. later tried to post his $400 bail in coins.

china crisis?

A few years ago I had the immense privilege of travelling with a group of Christian leaders in mainland China. It was a wonderful experience and one that has made a profound impact on me, and on my perspective on life.

I was humbled and in tears when we were introduced to a lady who looked like she was 200 years old, yet she had the spark of youth in her eyes as she told us part of her story through an interpreter:

She had been a nurse during the Cultural Revolution, working in a Christian Mission Hospital. One day soldiers came and took away all of the doctors and many of the other staff, leaving a handful of Christian nurses to care for all the patients. Each week the soldiers would come and beat them, demanding that they deny their faith in Jesus. Each week they would refuse.

With tears running down her cheeks she told us of how, to her shame, one week it got too much for her and she told the soldiers that she was no longer a believer, so that they would leave her alone. When they left she told us of how she wept and wept because, like Peter, she had denied her Lord. She prayed for forgiveness and strength.

The next week the soldiers returned to beat the Christians and were leaving her alone. She went up to them and told them that she had been weak when she denied being a follower of Jesus, but she had asked him to forgive her and he had, so they had better include her in the beatings again. She told them that even though they beat her every week for the rest of her life she would not stop following Jesus.

The soldiers left, and never returned.

What a wonderful woman! What incredible bravery, honesty and faith.

Later in our ‘tour’ we went to a Buddhist Temple as tourists. I was fascinated with how the Chinese people were buying temple currency and then taking it up and placing it before a Buddhist Priest, who had his head bowed in prayer. I was told that this was to buy prayers for themselves or for those for whom they were concerned. I was also told that the temple currency was recycled and sent back to the place where people were buying it to be bought again.

I moved from where we were stood and managed to get a view behind the table where the money was laid and see the priest who was bowed in prayer.

Except he was not praying.

He had his phone out in front of him, under the table, and was busy texting. I presume he was not texting prayers to Buddha!

The contrast between these two experiences has stayed with me. To me they illustrate the difference between living faith and dead religion. One left me energised, blessed, humbled and joyful. The other left me sad, dulled and upset at how people were being exploited.

May I always be more like that old lady than that priest.

Be blessed. Be a blessing.

Unfortunate translations of the Bible can lead to inappropriate understandings of what Jesus meant for us to do. He was not condoning bribery of the police when, in his parable about settling with your opponent before going to court, he mentions that if you fail to do so you will end up in prison. ‘You will not get out’, he concludes, ‘until you have paid the last copper’. (Luke 12:59, RSV).

Of course this could just be a corrupt text.

(From http://jokes.christiansunite.com)

finding faith

Last night’s Deep Thought at our church was fascinating. ‘Deep Thought’ is the name for an open discussion group where we consider big questions of life, the Universe and everything. It is named after the computer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that was designed to answer that question and came up with the answer… I won’t spoil it for you by giving the answer, but I know some of you shouted it at the screen at that moment!

We were considering why it isn’t easier to find God. Most people in this country have declared themselves to be Christian (according the the latest census data) but seem to keep God at arm’s length or further away: only involving him when things go wrong and they need a helping hand. The vast majority of people who walk past our church each day probably don’t give God a second thought.

The discussion meandered gently through how we discover God in other people, within ourselves, in tough times, in unexpected places, in nature, even in the Bible (irony alert), and in scientific discovery! Actually he’s not quiet at all, and if you look honestly and openly you can find him!

But he seems to keep his distance as well. There are no big signs in the sky that declare that God made this. There are no lightning bolts from the sky when people ask if there is a God. And it struck me again this morning that Jesus seemed to spend a lot of his time telling people who had correctly identified him as the Son of God to be quiet and not tell anyone!

Why the distance? We felt that it is because God gives us free will and if he made himself too obvious that would override our freedom. He has to give us space and the opportunity to disbelieve in order for our choice to be absolutely our choice. Yet we also felt that God is poised at the edge of that distance, ready to respond immediately to anyone who starts to move towards him. The distance is no greater than it needs to be.

We commented on how many people had turned to praying for Fabrice Muamba. Quite what they will do with this new-found faith in God who hears prayer as he continues his almost miraculous recovery I am not sure. I suspect that for many people it will be a return to normal. But perhaps one or two will have edged closer to God as a result and will find him – in people, in experiences, in the Bible, wherever they look. Perhaps they will find him in us if we are free samples of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Apparently true story about finding in unexpected places:

A German “tourist” supposedly on a golf holiday, showed up at customs with his golf bag. While making idle chatter about golf, the customs official realized that the tourist did not know what a handicap is. The customs official asked the tourist to demonstrate his swing, which he did – backwards!

A substantial amount of narcotics was found in the golf bag.

the cup of tea, the robotic dog and the precocious child

Christmas was brilliant. It was great sharing the Christmas Day service with my colleague Lynsey (taking a quick break from her maternity leave). We had a lovely day together as a family. And on Boxing Day we posted Sally’s relatives (Sheila, Norman, and Pat).

Christmas Crackers 1

We even managed to play a silly game during lunch. We all chose the name of a person, place or object and wrote it on some rather silly headgear for the person on our left. We each then had 20 questions in order to try and work out who we were. [If it wasn’t for the two sentences before the last one you might have thought we were trying amateur psychology!] The catch was that we could only ask questions that would result in an answer of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That all added to the fun and games. There were some very creative ideas – my mother-in-law Sheila had to work out that she was a cup of tea; my son Thomas was K9 (the robotic dog from Doctor Who); and I was Karen from Outnumbered.

I was particularly interested in the artificial parameters around the game. It would have been considerably easier if we had been able to ask any question at all rather than being constrained to asking questions that could only be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It seems to me that we are often guilty of applying the same sorts of artificial parameters to life. We want cut and dried answers to our questions. We hope that we will be able to come up with simple and yet comprehensive answers to complex scenarios such as how God can allow suffering in his world. And we insert an artificial dichotomy into the apparent debate between science and faith.

Somehow when it comes to the big questions of life we forget that life is almost always about fuzzy edges and grey areas. Why is it that we assume that we can come up with clear and concise answers to the most complex of questions when we struggle to answer simple ones with ‘yes’ or ‘no’? So, I have heard very intelligent people mocking those who articulate their faith in Christ because “you can’t prove that God exists using scientific methods and standards” and yet they are quite comfortable with the notion that there is no easy answer to the question posed by Thomas as K9: “Am I alive?”

For the most part when you look at Jesus’ teaching he does not offer us unequivocal answers. [Please put down those virtual stones until you have finished reading this bloggerel, at which point you may throw them if you still feel that it is appropriate.] When asked whether it was right to play Roman taxes Jesus did not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, instead he offered a principle that we should follow. When asked about how to get into heaven he did not give three simple steps, instead he turned the question back on the questioner and, when pushed further, told the story of the good Samaritan which challenged preconceptions. On another occasion when he was asked about the route to heaven he did not offer a roadmap or even a first century satnav, he said that he was the way, the truth, and the life and that no one could come to the Father except through him.

I do believe that there are clear answers to many of life’s questions. But they’re not always simple, often aren’t concise, and because they are of a different order may not stand up to interrogation by scientific methods. But then again neither do appreciation of beauty, unconditional love, grace, serenity in the face of tragedy, or forgiveness.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Cracker jokes (you have been warned!):

How do hedgehogs make love?
Very carefully.

What did the Policeman say to the stomach?
You’re under a vest

What wobbles and flies?
A Jelly-copter.

What goes ha ha ha clonk?
A man laughing his head off.

What do you get when you cross a cat with a lemon?
A sour puss!

“Waiter! This coffee tastes like mud.”
“Yes sir, it’s fresh ground.”

What athlete is warmest in winter?
A long jumper.

Why did the man get the sack from the orange juice factory?
Because he couldn’t concentrate.

What has four legs but can’t walk?
A table!

Why did the hedgehog cross the road?
To see his flatmate!

What goes up and never comes down?
Your age.

What do you give a man who has everything?
Antibiotics.

What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?
Dam.

What’s brown, steams and comes out of Cowes?
The Isle of Wight ferry.

What is Good King Wenceslas’s favourite pizza?
Deep pan, crisp and even.

Why would you invite a mushroom to a Christmas party?
He’s a fungi to be with.

Why was Santa’s little helper feeling depressed?
He had low elf-esteem.

On which side do chickens have the most feathers?
The outside.

What do you call a woman who stands between two goal posts?
Annette.

Did you hear about the man who bought a paper shop?
It blew away.

How do snowmen get around?
They ride an icicle.

Who hides in the bakery at Christmas?
A mince spy.

What do you call a penguin in the Sahara desert?
Lost.

Did you hear about the two ships that collided at sea?
One was carrying red paint and the other was carrying
blue paint. All the sailors ended up being marooned.

What’s ET short for?
Because he’s only got little legs.

Where do Snowmen like to dance?
At Snowballs.

What did Cinderella say when the chemist lost her
photographs?
Someday my prints will come.

What does Santa suffer from if he gets stuck in a
chimney?
Claustrophobia!

What kind of motorbike does Santa ride?
A Holly Davidson!

What does Santa do with fat elves?
He sends them to an Elf Farm!

What do you get if you cross Santa with a duck?
A Christmas Quacker!the

What’s the most popular Christmas wine?
‘I don’t like Brussels sprouts!’

 

simplicity

A local school is using our church premises for their Carols Services and Nativity plays. This morning I was showing our premises to a couple of members of staff from the school and trying to sort out some of the details.

As we looked at the church I tried to see things through the eyes of the staff members rather than through my familiar eyes. What is unfamiliar? What is ‘sacrosanct’? What can we move? What can be done to help? How can we adapt what we do to accommodate the school?

Those questions, relating to our premises, can also be helpfully applied to our lives as followers of Jesus. What aspects of following Jesus are unfamiliar to many people and need to be explained? What aspects of following Jesus are non-negotiable, and what can be changed? What can I do to help make Jesus more accessible to those around me? How can I adapt my practices and habits to serve those around me?

The non-negotiables are often the sticking points for us as churches and as individuals because we sometimes have different views on what those should be. This is often where we end up disagreeing over doctrine. I reckon that for God the non-negotiables are far fewer than we have. I have a sneaking suspicion that ‘faith in Jesus’ might be the absolute essential, if the experience of the thief on the cross is anything to go by and if we listen hard to the words of Jesus. The rest flows from that starting point.

Can it be as simple as that? Dare we allow it to be as simple as that?