100 metres

Like many millions in this country and probably across the world I watched the Athletics World Championships 100 metres men’s final on Saturday evening. I tuned in hoping to see the fairytale ending to Usain Bolt’s career with him winning the 100m.

But the fairytale ending didn’t happen. He didn’t even come second. He came third! That wasn’t meant to happen.

And more than that, the person who won, Justin Gatlin, had previously been banned from athletics for drugs offences. Twice.

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I had very mixed emotions. I felt sorry for Usain Bolt. It would have been so good for him to win one last time. I felt disappointed that my dream of seeing him win had died. And I was conflicted about someone who had twice been found guilty of cheating by using performance enhancing drugs winning and being crowned World Champion. It didn’t feel right.

I think many in the crowd at the London Stadium in Queen Elizabeth Park also felt the same way. When he was introduced as he came onto the track at the start Justin Gatlin was booed. And he was roundly booed when he won. And he was booed when he was awarded his medal last night. Part of it I think may have been frustration that it wasn’t Usain Bolt getting the gold medal but it was mostly, I think, an expression of distaste at Justin Gatlin’s past behaviour.

And that did not feel right either. He had ‘done his time’ for whatever he had done in the past and because of the stringent drug-testing nowadays we ought to be confident that he is now ‘clean’. So even though it doesn’t make me happy that he won, I don’t think he should have been booed. The rules of the sport allowed him to compete after he had served his sentence. Couldn’t the crowd have showed a bit more class and a lot more grace?

Usain Bolt’s comments after the race show his class:

“I always respected him as a competitor,” he said. “He’s one of the best I have faced. For me he deserves to be here, he’s done his time and he’s worked hard to get back to being one of the best athletes. He’s run fast times, he’s back and he’s doing great. I look at him like any other athlete, as a competitor.”

I think that what bothers me most is the lack of grace shown by the crowd. What if they had twice under-declared their income on their tax return, or had twice failed to admit that they had been undercharged in a shop, or had twice broken the speed limit, or had twice taken a ‘sickie’ from work, or had twice lied to their family … and been caught? Wouldn’t they want to be given another chance? Wouldn’t they hope that this would not characterise their life in the future? Wouldn’t they want to be allowed to move on after doing something to repair the damage and apologising? If so, isn’t it a bit, erm, hypocritical not to offer that same grace to someone else?

I cannot condemn Justin Galtin without also condemning myself because I know I am far from perfect. I hope and pray that with the help of God’s Spirit I am becoming more like the human being I was created to become and am able to fulfil my potential and part of that is showing grace to others. Jesus told a telling parable, you can find it in Matthew 18:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’

22 Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 ‘Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 ‘At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

28 ‘But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.

29 ‘His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.”

30 ‘But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 ‘Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 ‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

 

Be blessed, be a blessing

scar

If you are one of the poor souls who reads my bloggages regularly you will know that from time to time I mention that I suffer from Chronic Migraine and Cluster Headaches. From about 2002 onwards there has been a constant Migraine headache going on inside my skull. The only variation was in intensity of the pain levels. To go with this is a regular routine of Cluster Headaches. The CH attacks make the migraine feel pleasant by comparison and are debilitating beyond belief.

Before you start getting the handkerchiefs out for a sob story let me say that since I had an operation to install an Occipital Nerve Stimulator I have been more or less Migraine and Cluster Headache free while it has been working, which is life-transforming. The headaches are still there. They are still firing away, which I discovered to my painful cost when the battery in my first ONS expired and the headache pain resurfaced almost instantaneously. But the ONS means that my brain no longer pays attention to the pain signals.

(If you don’t like the idea of surgical implantation you might like to skip the next paragraph and pick up the bloggage below the picture).

I am SO grateful to have this gadget implanted within me and to feel the reassurring ‘fizz’ in the back of my head where the wires are implanted. Each week I sit for a while and re-charge the battery that is inserted just under the skin at the top of my chest (no, I don’t plug in, it’s an induction charging process).

charge
recharging

 

 

(If you skipped the last paragraph, welcome back). The great news for me is that because of this implant I am pain free on the whole. The headaches are there still, but I can’t feel them because my brain has been tricked into ignoring the pain signals.

However, occasionally I get a bit self-conscious about the bits and pieces inside me. Last weekend I attended the Baptist Assembly and as we were sitting in a row in the auditorium one of my self-conscious moments came over me as I realised that all of the people behind me were able to see the scar in the back of my head (oops, sorry, another potential squeam moment). I started to wonder what they were thinking about it, and if they were put off by it. I started to feel uncomfortable about it and wanted to put a hat on to hide it.

And then I realised that most people weren’t likely to be feeling as awkward about it as I was. I realised that if anyone asked me about it I would be able to tell them about the wonderful life-transforming nature of the surgery that led to that scar. And I realised that, once again, I was grateful that I have the scar rather than the headaches. I still wouldn’t mind if my hair regrew in that area and covered it (or indeed the rest of my scalp too) but I became comfortable once again in my own skin, scars and all.

That then got me thinking about how people can be really uncomfortable about how other people perceive them. We all want to be liked and appreciated. We don’t want other people to think badly of us. We try to keep our weaknesses and failures and difficulties hidden from others.

But as a follower of Jesus I want people to know that I have not got myself completely sorted, I still make mistakes, I still let people down, I still get things wrong. I want people to know that I am a work in progress. And while I don’t rejoice or revel in these things they are like the visible scar on the back of my head and I am happy that they are visible because they are testimony to the change that God is bringing about in me. I want people to know that my relationship with God, the example, teaching, forgiveness and fresh start offered by Jesus Christ and the personal experience and presence of the Spirit of God make all the difference in the world to me. Slowly but surely I am being changed to become a better person. The scars and wounds of fragile human nature and fecklessness are still present, but they now point to the fact that my identity in God has been changed to ‘forgiven’.

Just as my ONS means that my headaches no longer have the debilitating effect on me they once had, and it gives me the opportunity to live life with a broader smile on my face, so my relationship with God described above makes all the difference. It’s not that I am perfect and that bad stuff will no longer affect me – far from it. The bad stuff still happens but it happens in the wider context of God’s forgiving, all-embracing gracious love, his gentle presence, a certainty, a hope and a meaning for life within me that are life-transforming for me.

And my story includes an experience that without that forgiving, all-embracing gracious love, presence, certainty, hope and meaning for life within me during the darkest days of the rampant Migraines and Cluster Headaches I would not have been able to live in even the semblance of coping that I had. God’s grace was enough when there was nothing else but pain. The pain didn’t go away, but the all-consuming meaninglessness of it was given a different context of life, hope, love and strength that came from God, not from within.

I hope and pray that you might experience that for yourself too.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

who said that?

I was meeting with some church leaders recently and I said, “The past helps to shape our present but it need not define our future.”

One of the people there asked, “Who said that?”

My answer was not intended to be flippant: “Me.”

They wanted to know who I was quoting, but it was one of the rare occasions when something possibly profound came out of my mouth and I was not aware that I was quoting anyone else. I have since done an internet search for that sentence and while there are others who have written similar sentences and thoughts I am not aware of anyone who has said it in exactly the same way. (If I did inadvertently quote someone else please let me know and I will gladly attribute it to them.)

I have pondered this sentence since: partly because I could not believe I had said something that made sense and sounded like I was quoting from someone intelligent; and partly because I have reflected further on whether it is true. I still think it is. And it can be liberating.

A past success may have enabled us to be in a particular role or enjoy a measure of wealth or fame. But those things can fade if all we do is live on those past glories. I am a long-suffering supporter of a football team that has won domestic and European trophies at the highest level. But the last major trophy was well over 30 years ago and while we still rejoice in that success it is no guarantee of success or survival in the future.

A past failure may have shaped who we are today. But that does not mean that we have to be marked by that failure for the future. We don’t have to wallow in shame and self-pity forever. One of the joys of being a follower of Jesus is that he is in the business of offering forgiveness, fresh starts and freedom from past failure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApparently there’s a saying in countries where there unpaved roads that develop deep ruts in wet weather – choose your rut carefully as you will be in it for a long time.  Once your car wheels have entered a rut you will find it difficult to escape it. The idea is that whether it’s the recent or distant past, events in our life will have shaped and define who we are and where we are today.

But need not remain in a rut. Grace, apologising, seeking and giving forgiveness, reconciliation and renewed hope can help us leave a rut of past failure. Learning from the past, looking with optimism, seeking fresh vision and a willingness to grow can help us leave a rut of past success.

Be blessed, be a blessing

a love story

This Sunday morning in my sermon I will be exploring Hosea (the whole book). Every time I come to Hosea I find myself thinking, “What would I do if I was in Hosea’s position?” How would I feel? How would I cope?

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Hosea’s story is a love story… of sorts. The narrative is fascinating: Hosea set aside his personal preferences and on God’s instruction married a woman, Gomer, who was of dubious reputation (to say the least). This was to be a prophetic symbol to the nation of Israel about how God saw them – promiscuously pursuing other gods. He even named his children with names that spoke prophetically – how would I feel if God told me to name my daughter ‘Not Loved’?! And then there’s the emotional pain and heartache of Gomer’s further unfaithfulness and prostitution.

God not only told Hosea to take her back but he actually BOUGHT her back – perhaps paying off her pimp! Again, this was to be a prophetic sign of how God was going to treat Israel for a season (Hosea bought Gomer back but they were to abstain from sexual intimacy for many days and in the same way Israel’s return would be gradual). It’s only 14 chapters into the book (the final chapter) that there is a glimmer of hope for Israel as Hosea the prophet finishes denouncing them and instead announces the possibility of return to God, forgiveness, reconciliation and a renewed relationship with him. Hosea went through an emotional and reputational wringer in order to give the people God’s message. Some of you may be empathising with him a little! But he was willing to allow his whole life to be a message from God, not only his words. It’s a love story where we are Gomer and God is Hosea.

Ministers can feel a pressure (it may come from within or from outside us) to be a shining example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and not admit to any weakness. We can present ‘supercope’ to our people: nothing fazes us and we are as close to Jesus as it is possible to be this side of heaven (I exaggerate for comedic effect) (I think). But do we really want people to look at us and see a message from God that it’s wrong to admit weakness and that we never struggle? That’s not a message we find in the Bible: read Romans 7 if you doubt me!

It is important for people to know that we are trying our best with God’s Spirit’s help, they need to see leadership from their clergy, and the qualities of a leader are clear in the Bible. But I believe that we also need to admit that we are fallible, that we are not perfect, and that we don’t have it all together. I’m not talking about airing all of our dirty laundry – we have to be sensible about what we share. But how often are we prepared to be vulnerable about our own doubts, failings and struggles? Can we admit to people that we make mistakes – even Ministers who have trained, studied and are set apart for ministry? Do we dare allow the admission of our mistakes to be a message from God  – that no follower of Jesus is perfect but when we struggle, fail or even doubt there is hope because his Spirit is in us? Does admitting our struggles strengthen or weaken the message that there is the possibility of return to God, forgiveness, reconciliation and a renewed relationship with him?

What message from God do people get when they look at you?

Be blessed, be a blessing

a tidy desk is a sign of…

It’s been said that “a tidy desk is a sign of a tidy mind”. Or how about, “A tidy desk is a sign of a full desk drawer.”

But Albert Einstein apparently said that, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

paperworkThis week, among other things, I am going to tidy my desk (make of that what you will!). I have narrowed down my options to two viable alternatives based on the above (note ‘tidy’ not ’empty’!):

Alternative the first – scoop up all paperwork, stray documents, empty mugs and items that don’t currently have a home and deposit them in an empty drawer / cupboard.

Alternative the second – look through all of the papers on the desk and either respond, file or discard, take any empty mugs to the kitchen and clean them and find a home for any homeless items.

Both alternatives will result in me having a tidy desk.

Alternative the first is quicker and perhaps even in the short term more satisfying. But it will leave items still to be dealt with (and now more difficult to find / remember) and may result in the growth of new life forms if the mugs remain uncleaned for a long period of time, or at best the coffee dregs at the bottom of the mugs will have welded itself to the mug and be difficult to remove.

Alternative the second may take a bit more effort. It may take a bit more time. But at the end the tidy desk will not simply be a space free of clutter it will also be a reminder to me that I have dealt with everything.

How often in life do we deal with problems, difficulties, letting other people down, unforgiveness and other ‘clutter’ by scooping it up and lobbing it in an empty drawer or cupboard? We can give the impression that everything is fine and lovely but those things remain undealt with. They will not go away if we ignore them and indeed they can get worse so that we have a bigger issue to deal with when we finally have to deal with them.

It’s wise to try to sort out problems in our relationships with others and with God sooner rather than later. Occasional ‘spring cleans’ will take a lot longer and be harder work for us that regular ‘housekeeping’ and a relationship is always healthier and closer if there is not ‘stuff’ between you.

If you read Psalm 32 you will read about the difference it makes to us when we hide the stuff we really need to deal with and the contrast with how it feels when we have sought forgiveness.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

dusty to dustier

We’re having some building work done at our house at the moment – converting the garage into a study. The builders are doing a good job and it looks like this might be the last bloggage written in my upstairs temporary study as we anticipate being able to move everything downstairs into the new study over the weekend. Today’s photo is of a wonderful moment when the front wall had been built but the window was not ready and in order to secure the room overnight the builders cut the garage door in half. Some people have suggested that it looks like I was opening my own takeaway (suggested names included Nuclear Waffles (I don’t!); In Cod We Trust; nick’s kEBAbs; The Piece of Cod Which Passes All Understanding; and Fission Chips) or the story in the Thomas the Tank Engine series when Henry refused to come out of a tunnel so they bricked it up…

Even though most of the work has taken place in a sealed room and dust sheets have been used it is noticeable that most of the house seems to be coated with a thin film of dust at the moment. I have swept it up from time to time but it keeps coming back. On their own each individual speck of dust would not be noticeable, but when it gathers with its friends you can see it and it makes everything look grubby, dull and neglected.

I think dust is a good analogy for the things in our life that we’d rather weren’t there – the things the Bible calls ‘sin’. I don’t think many of us have lots of big boulder-sized sins to confess. But the little things, which on their own wouldn’t bother us, slowly accumulate until spiritually we feel grubby, dull and neglected. Little things like the occasional ‘white lie’, putting someone down, an unkind thought, selfishness, a quick gossip… you know the sort of thing.

Regular sweeping helps, but if we leave it until each Sunday to do that we will find we are quite dusty by the end of each week. And if we leave it longer than that we will find that the dust will seriously affect our relationship with God.

I find that I need trigger moments to help me dust daily – when I wash or clean or dust physically I also have a spiritual clean out too, I try to think about whether I have accumulated any dust recently and seek to sort it out.

“I am sorry, please forgive me” are six powerful words.Keep a short account with God and with other people.

And of course it would be much better if we didn’t get dusty in the first place. That’s where God’s Spirit comes in. If we ask him to and are willing to respond to him, he helps us to think before we speak. He nudges us before we act. He changes the way that we think about people so we think about them more the way God thinks about them.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

confession is good for the soul

Among the presents I received for Christmas was this:

You might be wondering why someone would give a 48 year-old man a Beano Annual (although if you know me you probably won’t be at all surprised). It was from my sister.

And it was a gift in response to something I did many years ago, and which I confessed to via Simon Mayo’s Radio Show on BBC Radio 2 in November 2015. You can listen to it here. For those who don’t know this feature, people write to Simon Mayo (calling him Father Simon, or something like that) and tell of past misdemeanours, and ask for forgiveness from the team.

If you are not in a situation where you can listen to the MP3 file, then I will put the text of the confession below. (There are a few differences between the text I sent in and the one that was read out, but I assure you that no goldfish were actually harmed (or consumed!)). This is what I wrote (changing my sister’s name to Beth).

Dear Father Simon and the Confessional Collective

I am writing to unburden myself about an event that happened many years ago, when I was about 5 or 6,  but which may have been foundational to what I do today.

As a small child I loved comics. Not the American superhero-type comics, but proper ones like The Beano, The Dandy, Whizzer and Chips, the Beezer and so on. One of my Grandads contributed to this passion by providing us with a new comic every time we saw him. Much as I enjoyed all of the characters in the comics I was particularly drawn to the mischievous characters like Beryl the Peril, Minnie the Minx and of course Dennis the Menace and Gnasher. In my heart of hearts I was drawn to their cartoon capers and imagined myself one of them. I did ask if I could join the Dennis the Menace fan club but my parents, fearing the worst, refused to let me.

On the fateful day in question my comic-giving Grandad and Grandma had come to our house to stay while we were going away on holiday. They brought comics with them and I read mine while my parents packed the car, so menacing was in my mind. When the time to go arrived my sister (we’ll call her Beth) and I went into the back garden to say goodbye to our goldfish who lived in a pond that was usually covered by a layer of green weed and slime. Beth got to the pond first and bent down to see if she could see any of the goldfish in order to say her ‘au revoir’, and I followed along behind.

As I approached the pond I was confronted by the sight of my sister bent over in front of me, facing the pond, and the mischief-maker within took over.

“I’ll push you in!” I said, in full menace-mode.

“Don’t you dare!” shouted Beth, but it was too late.

For a few blissful moments I was starring in my own comic as I shoved her into the pond. The sense of joy and delight was almost palpable, made all the better as Beth emerged from the pond covered in slime and weed. But the elation was cut short by the blood-curdling scream that Beth gave – a shout that brought me back to reality with a bump: “Muuuuuum!”

At that moment I knew I was in trouble that was even deeper than the pond. There was nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide and even “You dared me” was no defence to my actions.

Mum came running in response to Beth’s scream and was confronted by a slime-covered screaming swamp-monster and her rather sheepish little brother, ready to face the music. Beth was taken into the house to be cleaned up and I was severely chastised in such a way that sitting in the car for the long journey on our holiday was going to be uncomfortable (different times). Beth was convinced that she had swallowed a fish along with the rather large gulp of stinky pond water so she had to go back and count them: a task made more difficult by the fact that the traumatised fish had swum to the bottom of the somewhat opaque pond in order to recover.

Father Simon, I am now a Regional Minister in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and a significant part of being a Baptist Minister is pushing people under water, so I wonder whether this event has been formative for me in some way. I don’t seek forgiveness from my parents or my sister as I have already paid the penalty for my menacing misdemeanour. I don’t even seek forgiveness for traumatising the goldfish as they will have forgotten about it within a matter of seconds. But I do seek forgiveness from my Grandparents who had come to our house for a quiet break which began in such a traumatic way. In particular from my Grandad who, it has to be said, had a highly developed sense of mischief himself and must have almost done himself a mischief trying not to laugh at what had happened when he saw the screaming slime-covered swamp monster and heard what I had done, for to laugh would have vindicated my actions.

I throw myself on your mercy

Yours slightly less mischievously

Nick (you can call me Tom if you want to change my name)

Interestingly this generated some social media chatter from Baptists who were listening, trying to work out which Regional Minister had done such a thing. None of them suspected me (I know, unbelievable!).

And delightfully my sister (who works in a hospital) told her colleagues about it and they all listened to it. For the rest of the week she was known as ‘Swamp Monster’. Hehehe, the Menacing continues.

So now you know why my sister gave me a Dennis the Menace Annual for Christmas. Sadly there was no application form for the Dennis the Menace Fan Club included in the annual – I have since found out that the club is now closed to new members so I can’t join now, even if I wanted to, but that’s probably a good thing.

But I think there is something significant in all of this. Not my story, or even the gift (I have enjoyed reading it). But the act of confessing to someone else, having someone else to whom you are accountable. Protestant Christians seem to eschew confession as a throw back to the Reformation and as a rejection of all things Roman Catholic, but in doing so I think we have also lost something significant.

Protestant theology says that it’s important when we have fallen short of God’s standards that we confess it to him, ask him for forgiveness because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and seek his Spirit’s help to make a fresh start. We can do that directly to him, we don’t need an intermediary. But we can also benefit from having a confessor, someone who can hold us accountable, help us, pray for us, encourage us, support us, understand us, and help us to move on. It may take a bit of courage to admit to someone else that you have failed. It involves taking a risk. It is important that you find someone who will keep your confidence and not share your secrets with others, and whose relationship with you will not be adversely affected by it. It may or may not be your partner. It may or may not be someone in your church. But confession is good for the soul.

Be blessed, be a blessing.