glimpses of God

Warning. This bloggage contains images of natural beauty that has the potential to make you jealous.

As you will know if you have followed this blog that we have moved down to Plymouth in Devon, where I am now serving as the Minister of Mutley Baptist Church. The church are being so lovely and welcoming and have sent us lots of ideas of places to go and explore in the area. Now that the boxes are unpacked and most things have found their new place in the manse we decided that last Saturday we would do a little local exploring.

We went about 10 minutes away, to Plym Bridge which, as the name suggests, is a bridge over the river Plym – whose ‘mouth’ gives our city its name. We got out of the car and walked a few metres to the bridge. And we stopped.

It was almost overwhelming. A combination of appreciation of the beauty of the spot, the proximity to where we’re living, and the fact that God has called us to live in such a place led to us just stopping. There may have been some tears. I certainly uttered a quick ‘thank you’ prayer.

These photos give you an idea of our wonderful experience. We walked a couple of miles alongside the river (up one side and back down the other) and basked in the tranquility, enjoyed the calming effect of the burbling river bouncing off the stones and rocks on its way to the sea, nodded to and greeted other walkers, listened to peregrine falcons, and chatted. As they say around here… bootiful. Proper job.

I am originally from Devon so this is something of a return to my homeland for me, but Sally has only lived here for a year (when we first got married) yet she regards Devon as one of her ‘happy places’. Saturday just confirmed all of that too.

And in the midst of all of that I had an encounter with God. Not a loud booming voice or a brilliant white light. Not even with any discernible message. Just an awareness that God was close. Enjoying his creation brings us closer to the Creator. And I reckon he enjoys it too. After all, doesn’t Genesis 1 echo with God’s reflection that ‘it was good’, and finish with him pausing to look at everything and declare it ‘very good’?

It’s relatively easy to do that when we are walking in the Devon countryside, but what about those who live surrounded by bricks and concrete? We can still see glimpses of God in the way that grass gently and persistently breaks through concrete and tarmac; in the birds and even the urban wildlife.

But most of all we get glimpses of God in other people. The Bible tells us we’re made in God’s image – not that we physically look like him, but we bear the maker’s marks and we can see him in each person we meet. In the person who held the door open for you when you had your hands full. In the person who caught your eye and you saw each other over your facemasks. In the person who made you a cup of coffee. In the destitute person asking if you have any spare change. Even (and sometimes especially) in the person we least like or admire. If we look for him he’s everywhere.

So are we looking? And if people look at us, what glimpses of God will they see?

Be blessed, be a blessing

pondering

I’ve been pondering for a couple of weeks now.

What have I been pondering? I’ve been pondering what “Football’s coming home” actually means (from the iconic England anthem Three Lions written for the Euro 96 tournament by Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds). I know the sentiment that it is invoking, but it actually doesn’t make any sense.

“Of course it doesn’t,” I hear you retort, “it’s poetic.” Yes, I accept that. But the message of the song seems to be that football has been away from home for a long time and now it’s coming back. Does that mean that in all that time football matches played in parks with jumpers for goalposts, in non-league grounds, in League grounds and in big Premiership stadia weren’t properly football?

Yes, I am being petty and pedantic. But it’s my blog, so I reserve the right to be petty and pedantic when it suits me. But thinking about Three Lions got me pondering the use of other songs in sport. Why do we play national anthems before some sporting occasions, and not before others? There were no national anthems at Wimbledon, for example.

And why do England Rugby Union fans sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – a song with its roots in slavery (if ever there is a country that should not adopt such a song it’s England with its historical involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade)? I read on the BBc website that it started when England Player Martin Offiah scored (he was nicknamed ‘Chariots Offiah’) but does its current use promote cultural awareness and diversity or is it inappropriate?

And then there’s the use of Abide With Me at Wembley, sung especially before the FA Cup Final. It was written in 1847 by Devon vicar Henry Lyte, and was first sung at the 1927 FA Cup Final. Apparently it was chosen because King George V had been asked what he would like sung and this was Queen Mary’s favourite hymn. It has been sung ever since. But what has a hymn about God’s presence with us in the darkest of circumstances have to do with a game of football?

I suspect that in most cases the singing is less to do with the lyrical content and more to do with the communal event, the camaraderie of corporate singing, tradition, and the fact that they all have good, memorable tunes.

On Saturday I was Inducted at the church I am now serving in Plymouth and because of the Covid-19 restrictions we were unable to sing together (which I found ironic bearing in mind how loudly 90,000 fans sang Three Lions together in Wembley Stadium the following evening). At the end we used a video of a song that has been written to the tune of Abide With Me. It feels like a manifesto for our church. Have a listen / watch. It’s excellent. It’s a song I can wholeheartedly get behind and look forward to being able to sing with gusto very soon with the rest of the church I serve. Then we seek God’s help to put the words into action!

Be blessed, be a blessing

stress testing

We have a chair at home from a well-known Swedish furniture store. It is pictured below and you’ll notice that it doesn’t have four legs. Instead it is made of shaped, laminated wood that is both strong and flexible. Indeed, to demonstrate its strength and flexibility the stores had an example in a Perspex box with a machine pushing down on it and then releasing, with a counter showing how many hundreds of thousands of times this had happened without the chair breaking. It was a public demonstration of stress testing.

The chair looks well designed and well built. It looks strong. It looks comfortable (at least I think it does). But the only way you will truly know how well it is built and how strong the wood is is by sitting in the chair. We recently had a visitor who was a little reluctant to sit in the chair and I suspect it’s because they were unsure how well it would hold them (or perhaps because I mischievously suggested that if they sat down too hard they would be twanged back out of it). To test the quality of the chair you have to put it under stress. Only then will you find out its strengths and any weaknesses or flaws.

And I think the same is true of humans. On the surface all may seem lovely and good. All may appear ‘normal’. But under stress we reveal our strengths, our qualities and our faults and weaknesses.

I think I have seen this in the responses that I have seen and heard to England’s men’s football team being beaten on penalties in the finals of Euro 2020 (delayed by Covid). I was disappointed that England did not win, but I do not feel there was any need to apportion blame and single people out. One commentator on the TV made a disparaging comment about the relative youth of some of those who took the penalties. Why? There is a minority of people who have made hideous racist comments about those who did not score their penalties. Did they suddenly become racist, or did the stress reveal this abominable fault in their character? Listening to the radio news this morning I was appalled to hear of the online racist abuse aimed at the players who did not score. But then I heard the announcer telling us the names of the players who had missed – apportioning blame and highlighting them over the rest of the team in a form of scapegoating. That was a deliberate choice to name those players – isn’t that also a form of attack? These attacks reveal far more about those who perpetrate them than anything else. While the attacks are heinous, and I pray for the protection from these attacks for those who have been highlighted, what they really do is reveal the character of those who have made these attacks, looking for someone else to blame.

Now, despite what Bill Shankly once said, life and death is much more important than football. And rather than highlighting the failings of others I find I need to look at myself first and see what flaws and weaknesses in me are revealed when I am under stress. I know that I get grumpy when I am tired. I know that I can lack patience when I am under significant pressure. I know that I can look for people to blame when things go wrong (and forget to analyse my own contribution first). Those are just a few of my weaknesses and flaws.

But I am not content with them. I don’t like them. And as a follower of Jesus I have alternatives – not self-help or therapy (which have their place) but spiritual transformation that God’s Spirit brings about in us. He bears fruit in us that is far more attractive than our flaws. We looked at this fruit in our church recently and recognised that all of them overlap with each other, but in a beautiful Venn Diagram all intersect in love. Love that we see revealed most perfectly in Jesus and is glimpsed in 1 Corinthians 13.

We can’t make these things grow on our own, but with God’s Spirit’s help he will grow them in us. I pray that all of us will experience that growth, and as the fruit grows that it will displace and replace our flaws, failings and weaknesses. And the incredible thing is that if each of us tends to our own fruitfulness the collective fruitfulness of our churches and communities will be transformed – one life at a time.

Be blessed, be a blessing

A moving experience

We’re in the middle of moving house. Our home in Essex is rapidly resembling a complex box fort and the church I am now serving (Mutley Baptist Church) is about to assume ownership of the house we will occupy once our box fort is transferred to Devon.

pic by Svilen Milev

It’s a period of time that carries lots of emotion with it. Change almost always does because we are emotional beings and form attachments to things, places, people, times, experiences and much more beyond. When change happens, some of those will remain the same, but others will be different. Our love for family and friends does not change, but geography will make the relationships different.

In the hymn ‘Abide with me’ (sung each year at the FA Cup Final) there’s a line: “Change and decay in all around I see: O Thou who changest not abide with me.” I want to take issue with the association of change and decay, because although change may not be easy, it is not always bad. ‘Entropy’ is not inevitable. Even in the midst of sadness, loss and loneliness we can find positives: we experience those emotions because we are / were loved; no longer being in a particular place may leave us with a lump in our throat because of the memories we associate with that place, but there will be opportunities to create new wonderful memories in the new place. You see what I am saying, I hope. If we look for them there are positives, even in the most difficult of change.

And that brings me to the second part of that line from ‘Abide with me’. God’s constancy is a comfort in a changing world. And he’s not distant from us, he ‘abides’ with us if we ask him to. That’s an intimate relationship, dwelling in the same space, feeling the same feelings, hoping the same hopes…

Be blessed, be a blessing

another fresh start

So, looking back, it seems there have been several significant gaps in the timeline on this blog. These are times when for health, busyness or neglectful reasons I haven’t been composing bloggages. And the next bloggage after those gaps usually begins with an apology for the length of that gap and an expressed intention to do better.

So… sorry. I’ll try again.

I have just started as a local church minister again, in bootiful Devon. I am from Devon originally so it’s lovely to be back. IMHO it’s no coincidence that Devon is the only UK county that rhymes with ‘heaven’. It always lifts my spirits as I am driving down the motorway and see this roadsign:

Southbound M5, Devon © David Dixon cc-by-sa/2.0 :: Geograph Britain and  Ireland

I’m currently ‘between houses’ as the house moving plans have had to slide several times while the start date remained the same. So I am being blessed by the generosity of two couples in the church – one that have a flat I can use for a week, and the second who foolishly have said I can stay with them for the rest of the time until the moment when my wife and our house contents join me.

I hear sometimes Christians express a similar ‘between homes’ state, which is perhaps expressed most obviously in the Jim Reeves song, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” I know that the sentiment of the song is that there’s more beyond this life, but the problem with the attitude that this is transitory is that we don’t need to care about the planet (which actually goes against the reason why God created people in the Bible, to care for the place). And we don’t really need to bother living a full life now because the next one is going to be so much better (which goes against Jesus saying that he has come to give life in all its fullness).

I am really longing for the moment when Sally and I are reunited and can make our home here. But I am also planning to make the most of the time in between. It’s a beautiful day today and I think I will go for a walk down by the sea later on.

Be blessed, be a blessing

unexpected

These words from Isaiah 9 seem to be coming at me from all directions at the moment, more than I have noticed before in Advent:

2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (NIVUK)

(Here’s a video of a reading of this passage created by my colleague Graeme)

There are some incredible promises of hope here, aren’t there? A promise of a dazzling light in a time of darkness; renewed national growth and joy; victory over neighbouring countries; freedom from oppression; and of an end to violence and war. These are promises that an oppressed and vulnerable nation would readily embrace.

But the means by which God will achieve those hoped for promises is, unexpectedly, a child. It is very easy to skip past that to the grown-up Jesus because we know he is the Son and we want to celebrate and embrace his rule, the astonishing names that describe who he is, the eternal nature of his Kingdom and the new priorities of his Kingdom.

But stop for a moment and reflect again that God was going to provide a child as his way of doing things:

Helpless.

Vulnerable.

Fragile.

Dependent.

God in a swaddling nappy.

All that Jesus would achieve in his life, death and resurrection began with him as a child. God’s work sometimes has its origins in the unexpected and unlikely. Might we see him this year:

In the helplessness we feel as we live under Covid-19 Tier restrictions?

In the most vulnerable people who appreciate a little far more than we who have a lot appreciate abundance?

In recognising the fragility of what we used to consider ‘normal’ and now realise is transient?

In the newly-realised dependence on those whose work is usually unnoticed?

In the attitude of child who eagerly and gratefully receives a Christmas present as an example of how Jesus wants us to receive the Kingdom?

Be blessed, be a blessing

space to think?

The coronavirus pandemic is scary in both the scale of things and the speed it spread (taking advantage of how interconnected global travel has made us). It’s also scary for individuals who may have caught it (and their families) and for those who are worried that they might. Maybe you are worried about the dystopian nature of the measures being taken to try to contain the outbreak. I don’t intend to diminish the significance or impact of this. I pray that you may find some comfort about it.

When I was little and had been naughty one of the punishments was being sent to my room to “think about what I had done.” I wonder whether this virus is providing us with a moment that otherwise would not have existed to think about what we have done: as the normal commerce, travel and activity of 21st Century life are suspended does it give humanity an opportunity to pause and reconsider what’s important? Will a period of isolation help us realise how much we need one another? Will the inability to do lots of the things we take for granted mean we no longer take them for granted when they are restored? Will there be things we have to do without that we realise we actually can manage without and don’t restore them to our life afterwards? Will we realise that helping one another builds community while selfishness builds walls?

Those don’t have to be questions that are only answered at a global level. We would do well to consider them as individuals, families and communities.

And I wonder if this is giving the planet a rest from human pollution and giving us an opportunity to make some of the planet-saving changes that we need to make but which the relentless activity of 21st Century humans has made it impossible for us to contemplate until now?

The first half of Psalm 23 might just have a global significance, not just a personal one.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

I don’t believe for one second that God has caused this pandemic, but maybe we will allow ourselves to listen for his voice in it…

Be blessed, be a blessing

1%

Just over 2 years ago I had a major operation to sort out an aneurism on my aortic root. And our wonderful surgeons, doctors and nurses in the NHS did an amazing job of repairing and restoring me (not forgetting all those behind the scenes who cleaned, adminned, physioed and all the other unseen heroes), for which I am incredibly thankful.

In the pre-op meeting with my surgeon he was very reassuring but he needed to tell us about the risks. He said that there was a 1% risk of me dying during the operation. That was scary. Of course he also said that if I didn’t have the operation there was a 100% chance of me being killed when the aneurism burst, so it was a ‘no-brainer’.

But it was interesting how much bigger that 1% became in my mind. It wasn’t a disabling thought that stopped me functioning, but it was there – hovering in the background.

At least it was until a very wise woman suggested that I draw a circle and shade in 99% of it. She didn’t say anything else, just left that hanging.

So I did. It looked a bit like this:

And suddenly things were back in their right perspective. Yes, there was still a risk of me dying, but there was a 99% chance of me living. As my surgeon said, if you knew there was a 99% chance of winning the lottery, wouldn’t you buy a ticket?

I am aware that there will be some people for whom the spread of Covid-19 is alarming because, unlike a common cold, it carries a mortality rate with it. And each day the media (bless it) updates us on the figures – those who have caught the virus and those who have died from it. But the mortality rate is 1%.

Now across the world there are stringent emergency measures being put in place to try to limit the spread of the virus and slow down infection rates and they can make the 1% look huge. Yet there is a 99% chance of survival. While there are going to be a lot of isolated people over the next few months we can use social media to keep in touch. We can help each other out.

Here are a few ideas I have had and have gleaned from others:

Home food delivery slots from supermarkets seem to be in massive demand. How about getting together with your neighbours (especially if they don’t shop online) and doing a joint order?

Think of someone you know who is in a job that means they can’t stay at home and bake them a cake, send them a message, pick some flowers or do something else that says that you’re thinking of them and appreciate what they are doing.

Send an encouraging email, text message or social media post to someone different every day.

Don’t panic buy. We’re in this for the long haul and there will be enough for everyone if we all carry on buying supplies at the normal rate. Stockpiling is selfish. If you have stockpiled, perhaps you could make a gift of some of your resources to someone else?

If you are a follower of Jesus think about how you can apply his teaching – such as the parable of the Good Samaritan – in new, practical ways. And offer to pray for people.

I am sure there will be lots of other examples of how we can support and bless one another. Be imaginative. Be generous. Be kind.

Be blessed, be a blessing

fruity

Recent tragic events where high profile people have taken their life or had their reputation destroyed, and the ‘abdication’ of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have brought into the spotlight issues about kindness.

One of the issues is how people use social media. A response to these events that has grown from the general public has been a rise in awareness of the need for kindness. I have been tempted for a while to unsubscribe from some of the social media sites I use because of the abusive nature of some of the comments and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the social media companies to monitor and clamp down on this. I find it abhorrent how some people feel justified in writing hideous things about other people, often only known to them by their public reputation, and can’t begin to understand how painful and hurtful it must be to be on the receiving end of this. (I have not left yet because I feel it is important to try to be a positive influence in the cesspool* of hatred, trying to write positive words of encouragement in the face of the abuse.)

And I almost weep as I write this, but Christians can be some of the worst in being judgmental and condemning others who hold different views to them. How that fits with Jesus saying that people will know that we are his followers if we love one another I don’t know.

Of course it’s not just social media. Look again at how the mainstream media treat people in the public gaze. Every so often when there is a tragedy or they get caught being unethical or illegal they talk about self-regulation and not being intrusive into people’s lives but it seems that they can’t help themselves and before you know it they have crept back into their old ways. And we (the general public) encourage them. If people didn’t buy the newspapers or watch the TV programmes they would either have to change their ways or fade into obscurity, but we fuel their intrusive, abusive and accusative approach to ‘journalism’ by avidly consuming what is presented to us.

It strikes me that recent the call for kindness may be tapping into something that is in the heart of human consciousness. I think it’s part of the way that God put us together – a glimpse of his nature inherent within us. And it’s something the Bible talks about, and which God’s Spirit cultivates within us if we seek it, nurture it and practice it (in Galatians 5, NIVUK):

22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance [patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

I don’t think we can generate these things on our own. We need to seek the help of the One who created them. Pray that these things would become hallmarks of who you are. And if you are a follower of Jesus think about your social media profile and see how much of that fruit is evident…

But we can’t leave it to him either. Find ways of doing these things and you will find that they grow faster within you – God’s Spirit will have fertile soil to do his work. And notice that all of them are for the benefit of others (in part or in whole). They are not much good to us if we are not in relationships with other people. But other people will be blessed if we bear that fruit.

And I may be a bit ideological here but what if we all bear more of that fruit, even just a little bit? How much more like heaven on earth will our existence be?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*If you think I am being melodramatic or overly critical here, just read some of the comments below almost any news article online or when a high profile person makes a mistake.

followed

Eyes of a Hunter

Just over a week ago I returned from sabbatical leave, which was incredibly refreshing and a time of great personal blessing. I didn’t do a lot of travelling… or so I thought until I had an email from Google this morning. They kindly told me how much I had travelled in the past month. Apparently I have travelled over 1000 miles by car or train. And I have walked just 4 miles! THAT is definitely wrong, I have no idea how they missed so much walking activity (honestly). And it doesn’t take account of all those visits to the gym either.

I could look at this two ways – I could either be amazed at how they have been able to keep track of me and tell me so much information about me (including places I have visited) or I could be concerned at how much they are tracking me. Do I really want my every move recorded and reported? I guess it depends on what I think their motives are – benign, benevolent, commercial or sinister? Time to update my security settings I think.

It feels reminiscent of Psalm 139. Here are the first 6 verses:

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

I don’t find that sinister because I know God’s motives. There is something incredibly reassuring in these verses – reminding us that God knows all about us and is for us. If you have time read the rest of the psalm and, for a while, I suspect that feeling of reassurance will grow. Then you will reach the final stanza in which the psalmist pleads with God to slay the wicked and destroy all his enemies. I suspect we’re tempted to leave out those verses when we read the psalm in public. But they’re there because they’re honestly how the psalmist felt. We need to be honest with God because, as the first verse tells us, he knows us. I suspect the psalmist wasn’t sure about including those honest verses because he finishes with:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

That’s a good prayer for all of us, whether or not Google is tracking us. May we known that we are known, anxious thoughts and all, offensive ways and all, and may we be led in the way everlasting.