the write stuff

Image result for fountain pen writing

I have a confession to make. I love fountain pens. I don’t know why but I love the combination of the concept, the feel of them,  and particularly the sense of the flow of ink when writing that make up a fountain pen. I even like the sense of ancient history behind them (there are references to something that resembles a fountain pen in the 10th century, and of course quills were used many centuries before). I realise that in an electronic age (and I LOVE technology) it may seem rather archaic to enjoy fountain pens but there you go… it’s what I like.

Many years ago my wife gave me a lovely ink pen and it lasted quite a long time until it gave up and literally fell apart. I loved it so much that I tracked down another one online that looked identical and I bought it as a replacement. Then, tragically, earlier this year I dropped the replacement fountain pen while writing with it and it landed nib-down on a hard floor. The nib bent.

What had been a joy to write with became a scratchy implement that was difficult to write with and left an inconsistent and sometimes indecipherable mark on the paper. I tried to unbend the nib with as much gentleness and skill as I have seen on the BBC TV Show ‘The Repair Shop’ but I am not a skilled craftsman and the nib remained scratchy and inconsistent. I even checked to see if the old nib would fit from the previous pen, but there was a minor but important difference that meant it wouldn’t fit and in any event it was full of dry ink that would not budge. I then looked at whether it was possible to buy a new nib for the pen and was alarmed to see how expensive this would be. The problem was that these pens had gone out of production many years back. The replacement I had bought was remaining stock, not new stock, and to buy a replacement nib required a specialist shop and for specialist shop read ‘expensive shop’. I was quite upset.

However my birthday was coming up and I thought about asking for a replacement nib for my birthday. But it felt wrong to ask someone to spend as much on a new nib as the pen had cost in the first place. I decided to ask for a new fountain pen and settled on a different one that I liked the look of. I went into a pen shop and ‘tried it on’ and it felt really good in my hand. So that’s what I asked for, and that’s what my wife gave me for my birthday. I am delighted with it, it writes beautifully (even if my handwriting is a bit ropey because of how much I type now) and my love of fountain pens continues.

Why this tale of ink pens? Well, I was looking at my new pen on my desk a little earlier and was reminded of Psalm 45:1 “My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skilful writer.” It’s part of a love song composed for a wedding that praises the bride and groom, but confirms that God’s hand has been on the couple. It’s a lovely image – that our spoken words are written by a dextrous wordsmith – God’s Spirit inspiring our thoughts and speech. This is true for us when we preach and teach, when we seek to speak God’s words to people, and should be true of us all day long. The problem is that while the writer always remains skilled, sometimes the pen is scratchy and almost illegible. It can happen to any of us.

It happens when we don’t take care of our souls, perhaps when we have been dropped on the hard floor of self-reliance instead of relying on God’s Spirit. Or it can happen when we become spiritually dried up rather than allowing the Spirit of Jesus to flow within us and through us. And we can even make the mistake of failing to ask the Master Craftsman to restore us when that happens. Miraculously the beautiful message can still get through even when we are scratchy or the reservoir has run dry, but that is more down to the skill of the author than the pen.

If you’re aware that you are a bit scratchy why not put yourself in for a service? Take a retreat, find a Spiritual Director, be accountable to someone else and allow these people to help you. Open yourself afresh to God’s Spirit in whatever way you find it easiest to be restored and renewed so that once again the author’s wonderful words flow well.

Be blessed, be a blessing

audrey 3

So, this is Audrey 3. (That’s a Little Shop of Horrors reference, nothing to do with my Grandma for anyone who knows my family). I have always been fascinated by plants that eat insects and when recently I had a persistent little fly in my study I decided that now is the time to get myself a venus flytrap.

In researching beforehand I discovered that a supply of water and good light is more important to the plant’s survival than a supply of insects. I found out that they really don’t like being triggered without gaining food from it as that takes a lot of energy. And I discovered that venus flytraps only grow naturally in boggy land in North and South Carolina in the USA.

So far I have not seen Audrey 3 in action. I have kept her well watered and she sits near the window in my study in order to get the light she wants. But the pesky little flies have not decided to fall for her charms. I am not sure what I am expecting if / when they do. I would like to think that there would be a ‘whump’ followed by “Om, nom, nom, nom” but I suspect it will be far less dramatic than that.

I do wonder what vegetarians and vegans make of carnivorous plants. Do they cheer them on for getting their own back on more sentient beings, or do they resent them for eating ‘meat’?

And then, more recently, there was a freaky moment on YouTube. I had been speaking with a couple of people about Audrey 3 and why she was called that. Then yesterday as I was scrolling through the videos YouTube was offering me to view, I was offered a song from Little Shop of Horrors! How on earth did they know that I had been thinking about this show? Are they monitoring my conversations? Are they ready my mind?

Of course not. It’s just one of those random coincidences that happen sometimes and which the human brain contrives to put meaning to. Like when a song has been on our mind and we switch on the radio and it’s playing. Or when we have a sense of deja vu. I have a hunch that this is how superstitions start. Something happens just after something else and we attribute a causal connection. So perhaps a black cat walked underneath a ladder while someone was spilling some salt and at the same time a mirror was broken and a person who had been walking on the cracks in the pavement got distracted and tripped over… There must be some sort of connection.

It’s like bad luck always coming in threes. Nope. But sometimes it does, and sometimes we notice that it did.

I wonder if it’s true that the same people who are willing to see cause and effect at work in random events are less willing to see a creative mind behind the universe we inhabit, and are less keen to think that the Creator might be interested in them?

Be blessed, be a blessing – and if you have any flies you want getting rid of, you know who to call (or is that another film?).

training

train 2
Not the train I was on!

I was on a train yesterday at silly o’clock in the morning. It was almost full of commuters heading into London, however there was a spare seat between two blokes so, muttering an apology for disturbing them, I tried to squidge my way into the space.

I am not a very wide person and I kept my arms and elbows in front of me in order not to cramp those beside me, but the two of them reacted very differently. One of them (we’ll call him ‘Lefty’ because he was on my left) gave way a little. He moved across and enabled me to fit one side of my back against the back of the seat. I couldn’t get my arms back, but that was okay. He also kept his legs together so there was room for my legs.

The other, on my right, (guess what we’ll call him? Yup. ‘Bob’) did not give me anywhere near the same amount of space. Bob remained spread out. His arms and shoulders were pinned against the back of the seat (and part of the back of mine). I couldn’t lean fully back against the back of the seat because of him, so I remained hunched forward, hugging my backpack. His legs were spread out in such a way that if I hadn’t shifted mine it would have been a bit… intimate. Bob was not giving me a millimetre of ‘his’ space. He also had ear buds in and was playing music loudly enough for me to be able to hear the tinny ‘tshh te tshh te tshh’ that we are often blessed with by fellow passengers.

Because I was so cramped I could not move my arms to get out my phone or my Kindle to entertain myself, so I remained in this position for the rest of the journey. Every time we stopped at the station I willed him to get up and get off the train, but Bob was glued in place and my telekinetic powers were useless against him. It was not a comfortable journey.

Now I realise that I could have asked him to move. But I could see in the reflection of the glass in front of me that Bob had his eyes closed. He was either asleep, feigning sleep, or trying to block out the fact that there were other passengers and that made it more uncomfortable to contemplate interrupting him and asking him to give me my space. And I am British. And I wasn’t sure what sort of response I would get. So I suffered in silence.

At the end of the journey we all disembarked and part of me was feeling quite resentful about Bob. He hadn’t given me any consideration at all. But I had chosen not to ask him to move, and maybe he hadn’t realised how uncomfortable I was.

A part of me also thought, “Well played!” He had maintained his position, preserved his space, and had a much more comfortable journey than me.

So what are my reflections on Bob and Lefty?

There are times when we need to be considerate of others. We need to adapt our behaviour, attitude and approach in order to enable them to grow and flourish. It’s a part of what Jesus meant by us being ‘servant-hearted’.

But there are also times when we should not yield to the demands of others if they are going to cause harm to others or if they are asking us to compromise our core beliefs. In Luke 21:19 Jesus said to his friends (in the context of being persecuted), “Stand firm, and you will win life.” (NIVUK)

The art is knowing which is appropriate at any given time. I would suggest that the difference is to do with whether our core beliefs are under threat. Of course we need to know what they are, and we also need to be sure that we are not elevating secondary issues to the status of ‘core beliefs’ because we want to get our own way.

Be blessed, be a blessing

the parable of the choir

piano

“The greatest choir I have ever heard!” Sandra felt a tingle of electricity running down her spine and the hairs on her arms stood on end as she read the headline in the local newspaper. Last night the choir she had founded – Concordia – had sung as the headline act in the final concert of the town’s music festival. Sandra had to admit that they had sounded incredible. The singers had been lifted by the atmosphere in the theatre and had sung their hearts out.

It had all started eight years ago when Sandra had watched The Choir on television – when Gareth Malone had taken ordinary people and formed them into choirs. Sandra had been excited about the relationships that had formed, but more than that she had been inspired by Gareth’s ability to bring the best out of people and bring them together in harmony to make a wonderful sound together. Sandra had been a singing coach for a number of years so felt that she ought to be able to do the same. She had asked her friends and family and they had formed a small choir. As they grew in confidence the choir members invited their friends and colleagues to join them and the choir also grew in numbers so that now there were 35 of them meeting once a week to rehearse.

Concordia rehearsed in the local school on a Monday evening, alongside other evening classes. Sandra didn’t plan any concerts or performances, she was just enjoying being the choir director and the choir members seemed to enjoy singing together. But then people started listening outside the doors of the school hall after they had finished their evening classes, and then once one of them had sneaked in to listen at the back of the hall a small crowd would do the same and they had an audience. Sandra didn’t mind. She was focused on leading the choir and getting the best out of them. What she didn’t know was that one of the uninvited audience worked in the Town Council promoting community activities and they were planning a music festival. When the music festival organiser rang Sandra out of the blue and asked if the choir would like to perform as part of the event she was stunned. Sandra had never envisaged that the choir would do anything but rehearse together. The following Monday she told the choir about the invitation and, after some initial shyness, the choir had enthusiastically voted to do it.

Things escalated from there. Before Sandra knew what was happening she found that Concordia were listed in the final event of the festival. Then, just a day before the performance, the headline act had to pull out due to an attack of laryngitis and Concordia were promoted to the headline act. For their first public performance! But what a performance it had been. A standing ovation at the end had been followed by two encores – so great was the audience’s applause.

But the morning after the performance, as she read the article in the newspaper, the elation and euphoria ebbed away. Even though the reporter had written a really glowing review of the performance and had clearly been moved and thrilled by it there was no mention of Sandra by name, or even any mention of the musical director at all. It had been her idea, her choir, her hard work and her leading but it was as if she had not been there. Where was her acclaim?

At first the choir only sang for themselves and their own enjoyment. What aspects of (church) life are like that?

Are there times when we feel a bit like Sandra at the end – unappreciated and unacknowledged? What might you say to Sandra to encourage her?

Who are the unappreciated people who might appreciate a similar word of encouragement?

Be blessed, be a blessing

Jesus is missing

I hope that you are well and in good heart as you navigate through the maelstrom of Christmas events. I hope and pray that in the midst of it all you are finding Jesus… which leads me neatly to my theme:

Have you seen this news story on the BBC news website? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-46599641?utm_source=Daily+Media+Digest&utm_campaign=4223aabbb0-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_12_03_10_54_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_296e14724b-4223aabbb0-248620461&fbclid=IwAR2rgNGteYRlZ7vzkbhmnrM9m5nmIiM_DpmnUvHr-G9YkvdRYbzk_ooqC_w  

If you don’t have time to read it, the short version is that someone has taken the baby Jesus from a church nativity scene in St Annes, Lancashire. It’s not clear whether it’s malicious, pranksters or even a child who wanted to take care of the baby however in the article there are a couple of fascinating sentences: The first is from the priest, Revd Scargill who ‘said he had tried to order a replacement Jesus but it was out of stock.’ Imagine that, Jesus is out of stock at Christmas! (There’s a line for your Christmas day sermon).

But for many of us he can be out of stock, can’t he? I am not just talking about the people who don’t know him, who walk past churches every day unaware of the good news within. I am also referring to the way that for all of us we can all ‘run out of Jesus’ – even Ministers. It happens particularly when we are busy and we find that we lose touch with him. Our faith dims a bit (it’s so gradual we don’t always notice the process) and slowly but surely we find that we are ministering more in our own strength than in the power of the Spirit. Of course we are good at covering it up so that our people won’t notice, but we do notice after a while. We feel a little empty, or as if the shine has been taken off and spiritual fruit starts to wither and we respond to people with less grace, joy, patience and so on. That leads me to the second sentence.

In the article there are quotes from different people. The priest speaks of forgiveness for those who return Jesus. But on the church Facebook group one lady ‘called the culprit “low life scum”’. I’m not sure which of the fruit of the Spirit is being shown there.

I do hope they find Jesus (a smaller replacement has been offered). And more than that I hope and pray that all of us find him again this year in the familiar carols, readings, services, lunches, Christingles, nativity plays and the time we spend with those we love.

marking your card(s)

Earlier this week I was a bit flummoxed by the arrival of a Christmas card in the post. No, there’s nothing unusual about Christmas cards being delivered through the UK postal system. What flummoxed me was that I did not recognise one of the names on the card and the other signature was illegible so it didn’t give any clues.

I checked the postmark on the envelope and that gave me a geographical clue that has not helped at all. I am fairly sure that the card was not sent in error as it was addressed to me by name, as was the envelope. It’s frustrating because I don’t know who to thank if I see them.

But it did get me thinking about why we send Christmas cards. What’s the motivation? I have a few ideas about this. The first is that I think there are two main categories of cards – some are sent because of obligation and some are sent by choice:

Obligation – some cards are sent to people because we feel we ought to send them a card because of their role (eg business colleagues) or familial relationship with us. That does NOT mean we send the card grudgingly, but we do send it relatively automatically. These people will always be on our Christmas card list.

Choice – we send some cards to people because we have made an active decision to send them a card. We want to keep in touch with these people (even if it is just once a year) because we value them. These people would not receive a card because of their role or familial relationship with us, but even though it’s a value judgement as to whether we send a card to them we can’t deduce that they are more important if they are on this list.

So now some of you who receive a Christmas card from us will be trying to work out which category you fall into. Actually it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a card is sent. But what is the motivation behind cards received? I think it be any, some or all of these:

Keeping in touch – there are some people we don’t really hear from at any other time in the year. Our relationship is limited to the exchange of a printed piece of cardboard in December. But it is important to keep in touch with these people. We would be sad to lose touch completely. And sometimes we write things in the cards like, “We really ought to get together next year…” to express that desire, and on rare occasions we actually get around to it and it’s great.

Sharing news – there has been a noticeable drop-0ff in the number of cards we receive that have a letter in them that tells us what the sender (and their family) have been up to in the past year, and perhaps plans for the coming year. We enjoy reading these letters and try not to compare their year enviously with ours, particularly when they tell us about the six week holiday in the luxury resort in Hawaii.

Assurance of affection – some people with whom we are frequent contact send a card because they value that friendship / relationship. They send a card to confirm that the relationship is still valuable to them, and we return the compliment because we want to do the same. It can be awkward when someone sends a card for this reason and one is not reciprocated. It may be that the ‘replyer’ may not feel the same, or it may be that their card sending lacked efficiency. Sadly silence does not communicate the reason. There are always people with whom I have this imbalance and it’s usually me who fails to send, almost always because of the latter reason.

Expectation – this is almost always a card sent from the first of the two main categories. Not to send a card to these people may be considered rude or thoughtless. 

Charity – this is something I have seen growing where people post online that they are not sending cards this year but will be making a charity donation on behalf of all of their friends. I am attracted to this because it avoids some awkwardness and blesses others but it has the danger of the notice not being seen and people wondering whether you still care.

It’s complicated isn’t it? But I am reassuring myself with a couple of reflections:

There are very few people who will hold a grudge if I have forgotten to send them a card. This is not an excuse for failing to send one that you want to / intend to send but can make you feel better when your eye keeps getting drawn to that card on the mantelpiece and you know it’s too late to send it now.

A phone call or electronic communication is almost as good. If I have forgotten I can still call, text, message, send social media messages, and so on.

Behind the Christmas story we find all of these things: God sent his son into the world because of the relationship he has with us as our creator (obligation) and because he wants that relationship to be better (choice). The Incarnation (God with us) is his way of keeping in touch with us (and some of us manage it once a year at a Carol Service) – he would love to meet up with us next year. In the Christmas message he shares the good news of peace, hope, joy and love – there’s no need to be envious, he offers the same to all of us. He wants to assure us of his affection for us – not just ‘thinking of you’ but a passion and enthusiasm for you that will not give up even if you don’t reply. And he promised he’d do it, creating an expectation that we find fulfilled in Jesus. God’s desire is to bless all of humanity, with no exceptions, although his method of communication to us all risks his message not being heard and some people may wonder if he cares. 

Be blessed, be a blessing (and please don’t be too upset if you don’t get a card from me!)

seeing the light

Last week the Regional Team of which I am a part was on retreat for 24 hours. As a part of this process we were invited to share some thoughts on the theme of ‘Light’. I went for Psalm 36:9 – “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

The phrase ‘in your light we see light’ fascinated me because from a physics perspective it does not make sense. To paraphrase CS Spurgeon, you don’t need a candle to see the sun. God’s light surely shines so brightly that we do not need any help seeing it. So what does it mean? My commentaries were distinctly unhelpful as they all seem to have struggled with interpreting the phrase and have therefore passed over it without comment (thus not living up to their names). So I have had to try to work out what I believe it means and this is what I have come up with – I think the sense of it is that it is when we look at things in God’s light we see things as he sees them: I think it may be about seeing things from God’s perspective. In the Bible ‘darkness’ signifies death, destruction, evil and misery while ‘light’ represents victory over those things – life, hope, clarity and joy. To see things in God’s light is to take a more positive outlook on life and see things from a new perspective.

And I have thought of a few illustrations of what this might mean…

When you look at a glass of water do you see it as half-full or half-empty? Or from God’s perspective do you see a glass and some water and seek to find someone who is thirsty to give it to? If that’s a bit esoteric here’s one I think we can all grasp – Jesus’ death on the cross appeared to be a tragic defeat by the forces of evil but from God’s perspective was the moment when the victory over death was won and that was reinforced by the resurrection. Or how about when we see a small, struggling, ageing church (ie the congregation) – does God see a group of people who are more likely to rely on him because they have nothing left and who are best situated to reach the other older people in the community with the good news?

As we are in the season of Advent and each week more candles are lit to mark our progress to the birth of Christ may we all be given the gift of (in)sight to see things and people from God’s perspective and look for the Kingdom at work, growing secretly and bursting forth in unexpected ways.

May we see things in God’s light so that we see his glory..

Be blessed, be a blessing