scarred love

 

There have been several major tragic events in the UK in the past few weeks, involving significant loss of life and injury, and my heart goes out to all who have been bereaved or injured.

Recognising and honouring the incredible acts of selfless generosity and heroism that have been shown in response to these events is one way in which we can respond with hope and resilience in the face of tragedy. Responses in these extreme circumstances are of hope not hate, of kindness not cruelty, of love not loathing, of heroism not hesitation. These responses (to me) reveal glimpses of the intended qualities of the One who created human nature.

There are different levels of human culpability in these horrendous events (by which I mean that I am not wishing to prejudge the outcome of any inquiry, trial, etc). We have to accept that if humans had not acted in certain ways these tragedies may have been avoided or far less tragic. We also recognise that there is a pernicious quality to the evil side of life.

 

So what do we do?

Scream

Rage

Weep

Sit in dumbfounded silence

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All of these and more. I think that we need to be honest with ourselves about how we feel as a first step towards being honest with one another. What emotions are we feeling? Why do we feel these things?

One response to these sorts of event is regret expressed as ‘if only’. If only’ regrets can be corrosive. They can eat away at our ability to confront the impact of what has happened and begin the long process of coming come to terms with it and how we feel about it. But I can’t help feeling a deep sense of ‘if only’ regret on behalf of the victims. All suffering and death is a vile reminder that things are not as they should be, but somehow when the victims are those we would deem to be ‘innocent’ that exacerbates our sense of outrage and indignation that it should maraud savagely into our relatively well-ordered society. So we wonder whether it could have been prevented?

‘If only’ also looks for someone to blame: someone should have done something differently. Often that ‘someone’ is someone who is not known to us. It is much more difficult to cope with when ‘if only’ points the finger of blame and someone closer to home, or even to us. The ‘if only’ blame requires someone to resign or to be convicted or to apologise. And while collectively we may feel better when that happens we transfer the blame to that person / organisation and we distance ourselves from it. But the regret remains.

If you want to blame someone, by all means blame God. If you want to complain about the injustice then give him your best shot. He can cope with the raging lashing-out of hurting people.

Writing this post today I remembered writing a lament to God a few years ago for those who died when a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane was shot out of the sky over Ukraine. I was surprised to find that this was 18th July 2014 – how was it so long ago and how had I forgotten all about it?

Did you hear the 298 30,000 foot screams? Do you know who pressed the button: do you know if they feel guilty? Did you fall with them? Do you share the grief of the parents, partners, children who have an unexpected chasm opened up in their life? Do you know how angry we feel about it?

Do you care about the people of Ukraine, because we have replaced them with new news? Do you understand the depth of division that is so deep that people have given up on politics and taken up guns? Do you know how many people have died unseen by the world’s media and unnoticed by most of us?

Do you know how many people are buried in the rubble of Gaza or how many have escaped with their lives but that’s all they have left? Do you comprehend the incomprehensible hatred that fires random rockets and retaliates with missiles that infuriate and motivate more rockets that exasperate and lead to invasion? Do you weep with the families of four young boys who had been playing football on the beach until the shells hit?

And then there’s the Islamic insurgency in Nigeria, civil war in South Sudan, ongoing uprisings in Afghanistan, destruction and devastation in Syria and Iraq, and so many more. We name countries because the people are unknown to us and because it makes it easier for us to cope rather than think of all of the individuals.

Does the inhumanity make you weep? Does it make you regret? Does it erode hope?

It’s wrong. So wrong. Words can’t express it. But they are all you have given me.

One of the consequences of our global news social media world is that, while we feel the impact of each new tragedy more keenly because we see footage from camera phones from those who were there and we hear eyewitness accounts almost as they happen, we move onto the next one fairly rapidly with an almost macabre fascination. I could easily change the words above to reflect the most recent events. And in a few weeks’ time perhaps (please God no) there will be new events to replace those…

But when you are screaming at God when these things happen, ask him where he was and is.

God is not indifferent to our suffering.

At the risk of being insensitive to those who are suffering in ways far beyond anything I can imagine I do believe that part of the answer to that is that he is with us, he is in the pain, he feels the impact, he is screaming the screams of anguish. Why? Because he loves each one of us with love that goes far beyond that of any parent or child. He loves us because he made us lovingly. When his beloved ones are damaged, ruined, destroyed, and defiled his love – even though it remains undiminished – becomes a scarred love.

Be blessed, be a blessing

kaboom?

An unresolvable conundrum is this paradox: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” Is the answer ‘kaboom’?

explosionThere is no answer that does not fundamentally change the nature of either or both of the entities. If the immovable object moves it is no longer immovable or if the unstoppable force stops it is no longer unstoppable. There is no answer that allows them both to remain unaffected by the encounter.

But couldn’t the unstoppable force change direction and avoid the immovable object? Yes. And sometimes we prefer to avoid and evade conflict. But the force remains unstoppable and the object remains immovable and the likelihood is that we have only postponed the inevitable.

So what if they just keep bashing against each other until one of them wins? Well, technically if they do that it looks like the immovable object has won because the unstoppable force has stopped, even if it keeps trying to move the object. The unstoppable force will not be happy that its progress has been stopped and the immovable object will not be happy at the constant buffeting. Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in a place where nobody is happy but nobody is willing to give in.

What if one of them wins? What if the force moves the object or the object stops the force? Well one of them is happy, but the other is not only defeated but loses its identity and no doubt resents the winner for enforcing their will over them. Sometimes we see a conflict situation as ‘winner takes all’.

What if both of them decided that they needed to change. The immovable object could become a solid object that was willing to move and make way for the force, if the force could become a powerful force that was willing to allow the object to remain in that location and not seek its destruction. I think its called ‘compromise’.

I have sometimes thought of compromise as a weakness: a situation where nobody is entirely happy with the outcome. And it is, if we remain in a ‘win/lose’ mentality. But what if we could listen to how the ‘other’ feels about the situation too? What if we could understand how we make them feel? What if they could listen to us and understand how they make us feel? What if we were willing to change our approach in order to accommodate the other?

“Com” as a prefix (rather than the web address suffix) means ‘with’, ‘together’, and ‘collaboratively’. Add to that the word ‘promise’ and it becomes a mutual agreement in which everyone is involved and to which they are all committed. In that case ‘compromise’ is not weakness – it increases the strength of a relationship that otherwise might be destroyed.

Yes, of course, I know that there are painful times where it is right for people to go their separate ways. But that in itself is also a com-promise – agreeing together to end the escalating conflict in that way.

And while compromise means we have to be willing to give rather than focusing on what we might lose or give if we focus on what we gain it becomes easier to do. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on what Paul wrote in one of his letters to one of the early churches. He tried to address a conflict situation (Philippians 4:1-9):

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

In the context of the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche he did not tell them to battle it out until one of them won, he pleaded that they would “be of the same mind in the Lord” and asked the church to help them. It was their shared faith in Jesus that would be the starting point for their compromise. What was that same mind? I think it was to look at what they would gain by changing their attitude from ‘winner takes all’ to ‘com promise’ based on what they had in common. They would gain joy, gentleness, less anxiety, and prayerful peace.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

I don’t think Facebook really cares about me

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Early Facebook?

 

When I log on to Facebook now I often get reminded of a post I made a few years ago on the same date with the heading, “Your memories on Facebook”. I quite like that, it reminds me of things that I had forgotten had happened and people with whom I was in touch at that time.

The text under that heading reads: “Nick, we care about you and the memories you share here. We thought that you’d like to look back on this post from x years ago.”

Now I seriously doubt that Facebook care about me. There are over 1.5 billion users of Facebook and I don’t think that Facebook actually cares about each one of us as an individual even though the message is personalised.

Equally I don’t think they care about the memories I share on Facebook. They care whether or not I keep on being active on Facebook and want me to keep posting on Facebook in order that they continue to gain advertising revenue and sustain the business model under which they operate.

And I am pretty sure that they didn’t think about me and whether I would like to look back on a particular post. I suspect (cynical? me?) that there is a program running at Facebook HQ that picks out posts from previous years and lobs them onto my page for me to consider. No human thought was involved in selecting that memory for me.

I like the reminders of the memories, but I don’t like what feels like an attempt by a Faceless Corporation to try to personalise my experience and make me think that I am a valued customer. I know that it’s exactly the same experience as all of the other 1.5 billion users. They don’t care about me. They don’t think about me.

And sometimes I wonder whether that is how people experience God through Christians: almost as if we have a stock computer-generated response that may look on the surface as if it is personal but actually is more of a platitude: “Jesus loves you.”

How do people know that Jesus loves them? Not just because some random stranger tells them. Please note: I am not discounting random encounters but most people find faith in God through a long process of engagement with friends and family who are followers of Jesus. They know it because they experience it as true in the lives and words of those they know and trust. They know it because people they know and trust have taken the time to listen to them, to understand them and to love them unconditionally.

And that’s a challenge to me. Do I care about my friends and family? Do I care about the memories and experiences that have helped shape them and am I willing to listen to them? Have I thought about what they would like? How good a free sample of Jesus am I? Is it clear that I share my faith because I care about those people?

Be blessed, be a blessing

not much has happened

Dear Bloggists, sorry that it has been a while since my last bloggage. Not much has happened in the intervening time…

We have been on holiday to Sweden, meeting up with lots of Sally’s friends (and me making new friends). So I have seen lots of lakes, lots of words that in Swedish are normal but in English are funny (such as the delicious chocolate sweet in this photo).

I have seen castles and visited the Royal Palace at Drottningholm (in my mind a bit like Windsor Palace for the Queen in the UK as it’s a bit out of Stockholm). I have walked in a national park and heard some interesting noises that may or may not have been an elk or a wild boar.

I have discovered a new special concept: fika. This is stopping for tea / coffee and a cake, and can be at any time. Indeed as I write this bloggage I am also enjoying fika with a cup of coffee and the last of the Swedish cinnamon buns we brought back.

I have performed some magic for some of our Swedish friends, and also for an 8 year-old daughter of the friend of one of our Swedish friends on her birthday. It’s quite a challenge performing illusions when you don’t share a language, but it seemed to go well. I think an open mouth and wide eyes means the same thing for audiences in most languages!

And I have performed magic with a message at Heart for Harlow’s town centre service (not long after two women performed songs from Disney’s Frozen, complete with costumes.

I have had the date confirmed for my interview to join the Magic Circle. If I get through the interview I will then have an examination (audition) to perform later on.

We have been welcomed into Membership of our local church, South Woodham Evangelical Church.

Oh yes, and my friend Richard Jones only went and won Britain’s Got Talent! Well done Richard! You can see the two of us performing together last year here at the end of a show when we hired out a local village hall. I guess his days of performing in village halls may be over!

So not much has happened.

It is easy to get caught up and carried away with events, especially when they are either really positive or really negative, and forget that God wants us to involve him in these things too. When it’s good we sometimes forget to be grateful to him. When it’s bad we sometimes forget to call out to him (unless it’s to blame him).

I have written before about having an attitude of gratitude, and I am so grateful for all of the above experiences.

I am grateful that when things are not so good I know that I do not have to face those things alone. I know that He is with me when I walk through the darkest valley and I am grateful that nothing can separate me from his love.

I guess I am even grateful for the ability to be grateful. And I am also grateful that I have someone to be grateful to. If you don’t have a relationship with God, who are you able to be grateful to?

Today why not try listing things for which you are grateful, and be grateful to the One who gave you the ability to be grateful?

Be blessed, be a blessing

possibly the most difficult service of the year

virgin and childIn the UK this Sunday is marked as Mothering Sunday. And, when you are a local church Minister, it is one of those Sundays that takes a disproportionate amount of thought and preparation. It is a day when, when I have got it ‘wrong’, I have had more complaints than any other in the calendar year! Allow me to let you in on some of the things that have to be considered and how I have not got it right on occasions…

Gifts – do we give a gift on Mothering Sunday? If we do it should probably go to all women so that nobody feels excluded. Will a small posy of flowers be a blessing, or is it just a token? Will some women feel patronised by being included? Can we afford that number of posies of flowers? Who will organise getting the flowers and sorting them? Who will give them out? When in the service will they be given out? Are there any alternatives to flowers?

Inclusivity – not all women are mothers. Some would desperately love to be a mother and others would rather not. Some mothers no longer have their children with them – they might have moved away, they may have lost contact, some may have died prematurely. Some people did not get on well with their own mothers and would rather not be reminded of them. Some people are mothers and find it a joy, others find it a struggle. How can we prepare a service in which we take account of and include all of those different emotional needs and circumstances?

History – Mothering Sunday was not originally about mothers. It emerged in the era when the wealthy had lots of domestic servants in their homes who worked all hours and (if allowed out on a Sunday) attended the same church as their master/mistress. This was one Sunday in the year in which they were released from the obligation to attend that church and could go back to their Mother church and also visit their home. That’s a tradition that is no longer observed due to changed cultural and social structures. Mothering Sunday has now become about Mums. But if we focus on the historical roots of the day it could become a ‘Back to Church Sunday’, yet my experience in local church is that this would not be something that many would appreciate.

Language – It used to be ‘Mothering Sunday’, now it is ‘Mothers’ Day’. That change of language reflects the change of purpose of the day. But if it was a day to think about mothering it would be different from thinking about mothers. We could sensitively reflect on mothering as a positive concept and perhaps avoid upsetting some people by reminding them of past hurt or current pain.

Bible – linked to ‘language’, the Bible constantly talks about God as Father. Far less frequently is God referred to as ‘mother’ or even in the feminine, although there are a few passages – you can find a good summary of them here. I was in the congregation of a service on one occasion when the person leading opened with a prayer that began: “Mother God…” Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe that we have paid insufficient attention to the femaleness of God, and that we have ‘maleified’ Genesis 1:27 when the Bible talks about male and female being made in God’s image: if both genders are made in God’s image, what does that say about God? And I don’t actually think that to talk to God as our Mother is disrespectful, blasphemous or wrong. But to begin with those words upset almost everyone in the church (male and female) because it came without explanation or warning. I don’t think many people remembered anything about the service after those two words. There is still a lot of patriarchy in our theology and practice in church and Mothering Sunday has the potential to run aground on the rocks of that prejudice.

Tradition – I have found to my cost that if you try to change the way that Mothering Sunday has been done before you will get criticism. There is something important for people (which I have underestimated) about tradition (and that’s coming from a non-conformist branch of the church). One year I took the decision not to give out flowers but said that we would use the money instead to give to a charity working with bereaved mothers. I had not asked many people about this, I had not sought approval from the leadership team for this, I acted out of good motives but rashly and unilaterally. I naively thought that this would receive universal assent and affirmation as a new way of doing things. Nope. Cue lots of unhappy people (men and women) because I had changed from the traditional way we had done things. I’m not having a go at those people – their upset was genuine and I had not taken their feelings and thoughts into account. I’m just illustrating how deeply tradition is felt and how not to go about changing it.

Commercialisation – I do struggle with the way in which Mothers’ Day (Mothering Sunday) has been hijacked commercially. Cards have to be sent, gifts have to be bought, meals with the family in restaurants are booked (when usually people spend the time differently). Again, don’t misunderstand me. I am not against showing people that you love them by sending cards and gifts. It’s just that it sits uneasily with me, especially when there are people (identified above) for whom this is a difficult time and everywhere they go there will be reminders.

All of this may lead you to think that I am against Mothering Sunday. No. Not at all. It’s just that it’s so difficult to prepare for when you have to take all of the above into account, and that’s alongside the intention to prepare a service in which people can worship and encounter God, and a sermon through which God can speak. The beauty is that when I have got it right, it has been a very special time. For me it starts with preparing a service in which people can worship and encounter God and a sermon through which God can speak. But then it’s entirely right to take into consideration the issues I have mentioned above.

I think it is important that we encourage people to be who they are in church, not putting on a pretend, happy face when inside we are weeping. It is important that we bring all of our lives and experiences with us into church and seek God’s Spirit to minister to them, not leaving the difficult items at the door to be collected (unchanged) on the way out. Prayers can be inclusive, allowing time and space for the pain and hurt to be expressed to God alongside the thankfulness. If I was doing it again I would probably still want to make a gift to a charity working to support bereaved parents, but it would be alongside not instead of existing traditions if they were helpful to people.

Exploring the nature of God (including in the feminine) is something worth doing, and worth doing well. One of the moments that I think worked well was when we got some people up to have a ‘dandling’ competition using some of the dolls from the crèche, coming from this image in Isaiah 66:12-13:

‘I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
you will feed and be carried on her arm
    and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
    so will I comfort you;
    and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.’

(If you don’t know, dandling is playfully bouncing a child up and down on your knee.) The congregation voted for the best dandling and then we explored what it meant that God’s people (Israel in the Old Testament) are described as dandling – playful, secure, comforting, loving… and how that might be true of us.

I hope that, whatever Mothering Sunday means to you, it will also bring with it a greater awareness of God’s love, compassion, protection, joy, pride, enthusiasm and, yes, dandling into your life.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

in anticipation of St Valentine

words

This morning there was a discussion on the radio that reminded me that William Shakespeare invented over 1700 new words and phrases that are now in common usage in the English Language. Wow! When you consider that the average vocabulary is perhaps 35,000 words (wow again), that’s quite a significant proportion of words that have come from Stratford Bill.

Regular visitors here will know that I quite like inventing words myself. I’m not setting myself up in comparison with Billy S, but I do like playing with concepts and ideas and sounds and allowing them to merge into something new.

I have attempted words like ambisomnorous, franticipation, technoloiterate and of course regularly use bloggage, bloggerel, bloggists and derivatives thereof. If you want to know what they mean (as if it’s not obvious) stick the words in the search engine on this site and see what mania lies within my synapses.

There are new words in the Bible as well. Perhaps the most remarkable is ‘agape’. It’s pronounced ‘a gap ay’. The word only existed as a verb before the Bible was written but when the Old Testament was first translated into Greek (it was originally written down in Hebrew, having been faithfully passed down from generation to generation in verbal form) they used the verb as a noun.

A simple translation is ‘love‘. It’s something the shops have us thinking about a lot at the moment with cards and gifts and hearts everywhere designed to make them some money out of our love for others. But it’s so much more than that. It’s not romantic. It’s not sexual. It doesn’t depend on familial relationships. It is more and act of will than an emotion. It’s delight in the well-being of the one who is loved; it’s a love that is so deep that one is willing to give up one’s own life for the one who is loved; it is blessing, faithfulness, commitment and goodwill rolled into one.

It’s the lens through which God sees us. It’s the way that Jesus treated other people. It’s what led Jesus to die on the cross in our place. It’s the essence of God.

And it doesn’t come naturally. Naturally we are selfish, self-serving, self-promoting. Our natural instinct is to preserve ourselves, our status, our possessions at all costs. Evolutionary biologists would talk about the survival instinct within us.

So how come such a love as ‘agape’ exists? It comes from God. It points us to God. It enables us to catch a glimpse of God. It is a gift from God. And it is evidence of his Spirit at work in us.

To whom can you show agape today?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

watch it

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About 15 years ago, when I moved on my first church, the church very kindly gave me some money as a leaving gift. I decided that I wanted to spend it on something that would last so I bought myself a watch (my previous one was a cheap and cheerful purchase, probably from a garage forecourt shop).

The watch that I bought was a kinetic watch that took the energy of my everyday arm movements and stored it to make the hands and movements of the watch turn. So long as I moved my arm normally the watch was kept fully charged. Slowly, over the years, the watch’s ability to hold a charge diminished until it got to the point where if I took the watch off at night it would have run down by the morning. As I did not want to wear my watch during the night (too much risk of scratching myself with it and it tends to get a bit sweaty under the watch) I looked into the possibility of replacing the capacitor in the watch. When I discovered how expensive these things are I decided that now might be the time to buy myself a new watch.

When I moved on from my last church they were kind enough to give me some money as a leaving gift as well and as I had not spent this I decided that it would be rather a nice thing to buy a watch again. I looked into the possibility of buying another kinetic watch but they are rather expensive. Then I looked at other forms of self winding watches and found one that I like the look of on a well-known Internet auction site. It was being sold by a company that resold items which had been returned to a well-known high street catalogue-based retailer and was significantly cheaper than the normal retail price.

I bought it and have been very happy with it. But there is one difference between this and my kinetic watch. Whilst this watch uses my arm movements to wind the spring in the watch this only extends the length of time between winds to a couple of days, it does not keep the watch wound in perpetuity. It took me a while to realise this and then get used to it. Because I can see the spring through the face of the watch I can tell when it needs winding.

But I sometimes forget and only realise that the watch needed winding overnight when I check the time later in the day and realise that it is a couple of hours out. Thankfully because timepieces are relatively ubiquitous (on my computer, phone, tablet as well as on my desk, on the wall, in the car…) I’m usually able to find the correct time and reset the watch.

It seems to me that Christians are sometimes like kinetic watches. We make a commitment to follow Jesus Christ and then imagine that through our regular attendance at church our relationship with him is maintained. And to an extent it will be, but it will slowly run down and you may well find yourself frustrated and feeling spiritually worn out after a while. What Jesus was demonstrating to his followers (and that includes us) was that a relationship with “Our Father in heaven” is more like my ‘self-winding’ watch that benefits from regular attention.

Prayer can be as much a part of our daily living as breathing is (it is like oxygen for our soul). Reading the Bible need not be something special but can be routine (like regular meals for our soul). All that we say and do can be dedicated as an act of worship if we consciously decide that it will be – giving our best to honour God.

And if that sounds like I am making my Christian faith seem quite mundane and every day then hallelujah! I am not diminishing the honour and privilege and grace of a relationship with God through Jesus, don’t get me wrong. That God is even interested in me is incredible, never mind that he loves me as much as he does! But he wants to be part of our everyday ordinary working walking eating sleeping watching telly sending emails talking with people texting driving drinking internetting laughing crying surprising mundane lives. I think he longs to be a natural part of everyone’s life – so much so that we don’t consciously have to remember him because he is involved in everything.

Does that sound idealistic? Does it sound impossible? It is on our own, which is why Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to us in order to help us in our relationship with God. He is with us always. He’s constantly nudging, speaking, encouraging, suggesting, reminding, provoking, praying, listening, hoping, blessing and seeking a response from us so that in partnership with him our awareness of God (Father, Son, Spirit) grows and our relationship deepens. All you need to do is ask for it to start. And then like my self-winding watch give him your regular attention. It doesn’t happen overnight but the more we involve God in everything the more we find he is involved in everything already and has simply been waiting for us to realise that.

Be blessed, be a blessing.