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. 3 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. 4 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. 5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. 6 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. 7 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)
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:
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?
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.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 4 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…
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.
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.
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:
1 You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 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.
Recently Sally (my best friend to whom I am married) and I went with a couple of friends on holiday to Center Parcs in UK. It was a great time away and we enjoyed a range of different activities including crossbow shooting, laser clay pigeon shooting, an escape room, meeting some owls as well as splashing in the pool, screaming down the rapids and enjoying being leisurely.
I was interested that at the end of some of the activities (the competitive ones) certificates were awarded for those who had been best (and we got one for escaping from the escape room too). I can understand that for some children that’s exciting but at first I felt slightly patronised when I was awarded my certificate for coming third in the laser clay pigeon shooting (Sally came first). It didn’t feel like much of an achievement. (Of course when I was top in the crossbow shooting I suddenly decided that the certificates were more significant!). However it still felt a bit like some school sports days where everyone gets a medal regardless of where they finished. And that felt a bit silly for people in their 50s!
But on reflection I realised that encouraging one another and building each other up is a really important thing to do. Perhaps we ought to be awarding certificates for: the timeliest provision of a cup of tea/coffee at work; the tidiest bedroom in the house; the tastiest meal of the week; the kindest act in public…
Of course, that’s silly isn’t it? But just for a moment think about the awards that you might receive. Think about the awards that you might give to someone else. And rather than make a certificate (you can if you want) why not take the time to go and tell that person that you appreciate what they have done? Why not give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done by yourself?
There are quite a few times in the New Testament where churches are urged to be places of encouragement and affirmation. Some are good at it, others need some more practice. But the problem I can see is that sometimes we (churches) have kept the encouraging and affirming for ourselves. I don’t think that we’re meant to limit our appreciation. I think an attitude of gratitude should be one of the distinctive things about followers of Jesus that others should be able to see in us and receive from us as a sign of how much God appreciates them too.
Today is the day after the 2019 General Election in the UK. Those who read this blog regularly probably won’t be surprised to learn that it was not the result I was hoping and praying for. So what do we do? We can stomp around in an angry huff, complaining about fairness and how the election campaign was fought. And that may make us feel better in a cathartic fashion, but it is not a sustainable solution. I want to offer HOPE and have four suggestions how we can do that:
If social media is anything to go by there will be a lot of people who are disappointed in the election result. Indeed, the way our electoral system works there are more people who voted against the new government than who voted for it. So how can you help others to come to terms with the result? Rather than ramping up the rhetoric can you offer gentle, calm words of wisdom? An offer of a cup of tea or coffee may seem insignificant but it shows you care when someone is sad. And a non-critical listening ear costs only time.
Can you explore ways of helping during the term of the next parliament? For example, can you help support a local foodbank. From being almost non-existent 10 years ago last year the Trussell Trust, which supports a national network of foodbanks, distributed ovr 1.6 million individual food parcels and they have seen a 23% increase in demand between April and September 2019 over the same period last year.
Can you help support those who feel more vulnerable because of the policies that are planned or will be maintained by the current government? It is not likely that things like Universal Credit are going to change anytime soon, so if you are aware of those who have been adversely affected by such policies try to find out whom you can help and how. It may not be you on your own, but with a group of friends you can make a difference.
We can all help with those who are lonely and isolated. Who in your neighbourhood could do with a visit, help with shopping, a lift or some lunch?
If we were to calculate the value in pounds of the work of volunteers in the UK it is estimated as about £24 billion per year! If it didn’t happen there would have be a massive hit on taxes to provide those things. This country has to rely on each other, not just on government. That includes you and me.
There is something we can all do to HELP.
There were a number of promises made by our new government during the election. There was a lot of doubt expressed about them, but we need to be vigilant now and seek to ensure that they are kept.
According to the Conservative Manifesto we should expect to see: 50,000 new nurses in the NHS; no income tax, VAT or National Insurance rises; pensions to rise by at least 2.5% each year; that no-one will need to sell their home to pay for care; progress on achieving zero emissions by 2050; £6.3bn spent on 2.2 million disadvantaged homes; a commitment to reduce poverty, including child poverty, through changes to tax and benefits; 250,000 extra childcare places; tuition fees frozen at £9,250; a new Manchester to Leeds rail line and £2bn to fill potholes; millions more invested every week in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure while controlling debt; and 20,000 more police.
Those are Manifesto commitments. So lets make sure that they happen. Check your newspapers and news bulletins. Try reading reports from those who don’t share your political leaning to inform yourself. Let’s be OBSERVANT.
I don’t mean here that we try to predict the future. In the Bible prophecy is more about speaking (God’s) truth in the present. So how can we be prophetic?
We can dissent. Baptist Christians (my church family) have their roots in dissent. They spoke out against injustice and evil where they saw it. In the bad old days when it was illegal to be a non-conformist many of them were imprisoned (John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress while in prison). Christians have led campaigns for social change including the abolition of the slave trade and many of the social improvements in the Victorian era. The Drop the Debt and Jubilee 2000 campaigns began with Christians at the heart of them, but it’s not just Christians. Bob Geldof led a movement in the 1980s that culminated in Live Aid and (in my view) began the process of major fundraising events supporting the poorest and marginalised in our world that continues through Children in Need, Comic Relief, Sport Relief and others. Greta Thunberg is making a massive difference by raising the issue of climate change in a way that has motivated millions so that the powers that be are being challenged to increase the rate of change.
There’s a great tradition of prophetic action in the Bible – from sitting naked on a pile of ashes to marrying a woman of dubious reputation and taking her back when she was unfaithful. I am not suggesting either of those actions, but what action can you take? It may be something simple like ensuring you reduce your plastic consumption, recycling more or walking or cycling shorter journey distances to reduce your impact on the environment and encouraging others to do the same. It may be joining in with a protest march, or signing an online petition. There may well be other things you’re inspired to do. Do them.
We can all be PROPHETIC.
This follows on from being prophetic. As well as prophetic action to highlight issues and make a difference we need to engage with those in power – those who may be able to change things.
If we see injustice we should not sit by and remain silent about it. If there are things that are wrong we should campaign against them. And if there are others who are speaking out we should support them. If nothing else we should contact our MP and point out the issues (I think I have been put on an activist watchlist by my MP (Con) because he hasn’t replied to my last 2 emails where I pointed out flaws in some of the government plans and activities, but he did reply to the earlier ones). When I lived in a different constituency I engaged with my MP (Lib Dem) about Foodbanks and he didn’t like it (you can see it here – read the comments at the bottom of the bloggage for the full account) but it got a response.
Keep going. Encourage like-minded others to join you. One thing Greta Thunberg has reminded us about is that a single voice can make a difference, but it is most effective when it motivates the many voices. Speak truth to power.
It is suggested that one letter or email to an MP is considered to represent the views of hundreds. So imagine the impact of 100 people writing to the same MP.
If you are a praying person, pray for politicians too. They have a difficult job, whatever we think of them. When they do something you like, write to encourage them. Don’t only be a moaner (I need to do something about that).
At a time when it may feel that your vote didn’t count for much, let’s remember to keep ENGAGING with our politicians at national and local level.
I am sure that by now you will have realised that the 4 suggestions above give and acronym of HOPE. Let’s ensure that hope never dies and give it to those who feel hopeless.
This bloggage continues my short series looking at different ways of praying. It started last week with ‘buffet‘. I was going to call this ‘Christmas List’ but you’ll hopefully see why I have called this ‘shopping list’ instead.
When I was a child I would often look at written shopping lists and mark them as if they were spelling tests. Not only that but I would also write things like ‘Could do better’ or ‘See me!’… I bet my Mum loved it! (Her spelling was not as bad as the list above!).
But it’s difficult to resist the temptation to mark shopping list prayers. Are they self-indulgent or are they outward-focused? Are they based on wants or needs? Are they accompanied by any other sort of prayer or is it all about the list? And so on. I want to try to avoid that. I think God loves any sort of prayer, but we can always do better.
What do I mean by ‘shopping list’ (or Christmas list) prayers? I mean the long lists of things we can bring to God for him to sort out / provide / intervene / change / bless and much more. Because he is a gracious and generous God there is the temptation to treat him as if he is a spiritual vending machine where we if we put in the right amount of praying we will get what we want. Remarkably, because he is so gracious and generous, sometimes he does respond to this sort of praying, but that can have the undesired effect of encouraging us to keep going.
Now hear me loud and hear me clearly. God does want us to bring these things to him. He does get involved in our lives at a micro-level and in the world at a macro-level and he does respond to our praying because he loves to interact with us. We might call it ‘interceding’ for others or ‘relying on God’ and those things are good, important and healthy. Do not stop with the shopping lists because of this bloggage.
But there are a few things we can do to improve our praying.
Be less prescriptive. If I am shopping and my shopping list says ‘Cheese’ I have a wide range of possibilities to choose from. If it says, “X brand Danish Blue cheese” the choice is much more limited. Have we decided before we pray what we want the answer to be? I can remember one of our children going through a shopping catalogue before Christmas and circling the items they wanted. That way we knew exactly what they wanted to receive. Again, hear this correctly: there is nothing wrong with saying to God what outcome we would like. But there is a difference between doing that and prescribing to God the only acceptable outcome. That’s vending machine praying. God wants a dialogue rather than a shopping list, so even if we have a desired outcome, why not ask him what he would like to do? That brings me to the second thing we can do…
Whose will is it anyway? In the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ we are taught to pray ‘Your (Thy) will be done’. That’s a nuanced difference from the shopping list if it has become ‘My will be done’. If we are asking God what he would like to do, we need to be willing and ready to accept that his will may be different to ours. And recognising who God is and who we are may help us to accept that his desired outcome may be different from ours. Which is likely to be best?
Be willing to be changed. This follows from the previous way of improving our shopping lists. Do we pray to try to change God’s mind or to allow him to change ours? I think he rather likes using our prayers as an opportunity for a conversation with us about the issues we are praying about. But a dialogue surely contains within it the possibility of being shaped by the other person, doesn’t it? The amazing thing about praying to God is that sometimes I find that the first outcome is that I am changed even before anything else happens. And even more amazing is that God accommodates himself to my prayers too. I am not sure he always has just one prescriptive answer to every prayer. Sometimes he gives me a range of choices and all of them are good (such as which songs to sing or who to visit). Doesn’t that sound better than a mere shopping list?
Be ready to be a part of the answer. I have found that when I pray with a shopping list I find that it is more often the case that the answer lies with me than I am willing to admit. In the Bible Jesus’ friends came to him when they were confronted with a mahoosive crowd of hungry people. They had a planned solutions to the problem – send the people away and let them find some food in the surrounding villages. Jesus answered: “You give them something to eat…” If I am praying for someone who is upset part of the answer may be for me to go and comfort that person. If I am praying about injustice part of the answer may be for me to campaign against that injustice. If I am praying about someone who is hungry what should I do…
Be open to receiving a new list. If this praying thing is a conversation then isn’t it possible that God will respond by saying, “Well your list is interesting, but have a look at my priorities and see what you think…” My shopping list may have been rather ‘bland’, may have lacked faith or even been selfish. So seeing God’s list of priorities is worth exploring and you can find them writ large across the pages of the Bible.
Let’s not stop shopping, but let’s be open to being more conversational!