If you watch, listen to or read the news at the moment it can make for miserable reading. There’s hideous violence committed at individual, community and international levels. There’s devastating poverty that is affecting people, countries and whole regions of the world. There is hideous greed that is making a few rich at the expense of those who can least afford it. Environmental crises are breaking out across the globe with a seeming unwillingness to act from some of those who are most able to make a positive difference, preferring short term economic gain while sticking their fingers in their ears and ignoring the clamour for action. There is blatant racism, sexism and other prejudices that seem to be encouraged or at least not condemned at the highest level.
It’s not likely to lead us to a happy place is it? Even the ‘and finally’ lighthearted items on the news or the plethora of funny cat videos on the internet can’t lift the sense of gloom.
So what can we do?
Have another look at Psalm 23. You probably all know it, or have heard of it. Yes, that’s right: the Shepherd 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,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Most of us don’t have a lot of experience of shepherds, especially ancient near-Eastern ones, so what can this ancient piece of poetry do for us today?
First of all, recognise that an ancient near-Eastern shepherd was responsible for protecting the whole flock and providing for them. It wasn’t simply a question of leaving them out in a field, the flock would roam the countryside. And they would follow their shepherd who would go ahead of them (not driving them from behind as in the UK), listening for his voice and trusting him because he had provided for them in the past. No sheepdogs were needed because the shepherd was trusted and known. David, who wrote this psalm, had experience of this as he had been a shepherd, and that was one of the ways in which he experienced God – someone he knew, whom he trusted, whom he was willing to follow, whose voice he knew.
Green pastures are always good places if you are a herbivore. It’s easy food and provides the nutrients that are needed. In the ancient near-East green pastures would have been at a premium, bearing in mind that it was/is a hot climate. Much of the land would be dry scrubland with not so much to eat, so if a sheep found theirself led to a green pasture it was bliss , especially if there was also a source of cool water there. If you have been in the hot Mediterranean sun you would be refreshed and feel restored at such places. When we find ourselves in green pastures or beside still, refreshing waters we should not forget to give thanks to the one who has led us there. We should find ways that our soul is restored – what works for you?
The shepherd would know the local terrain and would know which were the paths to follow. Some might be difficult but they would go to the right destination. Here ‘right paths’ doesn’t just mean those that go to the right places, however, it also refers to ‘righteousness’ or ‘faithfulness’ and means that the flock benefits from the shepherd’s faithfulness. ‘For his name’s sake’ means that God acts consistently with his character. There are many names given to God in the Old Testament and all of them reflect something of his character. Even referring to him as ‘The Lord’ as David does at the beginning of the Psalm is bigger than we imagine. The word in Hebrew is YHWH – the Hebrew word for God that was originally unpronounceable because there were no vowels but is now sometimes pronounced ‘Yahweh’. It derives from the Hebrew for ‘I am’ and reminds us of the eternal nature of God, the existence of God, the constancy of God, the self-sufficiency of God and so much more. That’s the One who’s our shepherd!
Following the shepherd does not mean that we’ll always be in green pastures and beside still waters. There are times when we go through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death). We all know that to be true even though we hate to admit it. The difference for those who follow the shepherd is that they know he is with them as they travel through that dark valley. They may be frightened, worried, anxious or even terrified of what is in the shadows, but they know that the shepherd is there with them and is committed to them. You’re not alone if you don’t want to be.
The psalm abruptly changes from a pastoral metaphor to a banquet scene. There’s a celebration, a meal in our honour, and we will be vindicated in the sight of those who have opposed us. The host is generous to us and honours us. Did you notice too how the language changes from an impersonal third person (‘he’) to a personal second person (‘you’). This is not a theoretical expression of faith, it’s a personal relationship with YHWH. God’s care for us is genuine: not just a story of a shepherd but an experience of love, care, honour and justification.
And there’s an eternal dimension to this that can never be taken away from us.
Add to that what Jesus said about being the Good Shepherd and it becomes spectacular!
None of this changes the news. But it may help us look at it differently knowing that YHWH is leading us, with us, for us and we are his eternally.
Be blessed, be a blessing
Recently, in order to make an online order up to the amount that qualified for free delivery, I bought a Rubik’s Cube. Technically it isn’t a Rubik’s Cube because it is not an official one, but you know what I mean.
When they first came out I was a teenager and I got hold of one. I learnt how to solve it and spent a lot of free time trying to solve it as quickly as possible. I was delighted when I managed to do it in 45 seconds on one occasion, and my average got down to about 1 minute. There are a few moves that you have to know, and of course you need to know where and when to do them. I was pleased with myself.
I don’t know that I could solve the cube as quickly as that now, but I am enjoying the challenge of solving it (each time is almost certainly different to the last because of the number of permutations of a cube). There is something satisfying about being able to transform a mixed up cube back to its solved state. However my pride at being able to solve the cube was put in perspective when I saw a video of people solving the cube in about 6 seconds! They do have special ‘speed’ cubes but even so it’s astonishing to witness. My method of solving the cube would not work at such speeds so it is clear that they have another approach.
A bit like my love of fountain pens (see the previous bloggage) part of my enjoyment is also tactile. There is something satisfying about the way that a Rubik’s cube moves. The noise it makes, the smooth clacking as the cubes are rotated and even the way that the cube fits into my hand and can be flicked by my fingers is soothing.
And there is a sense of fulfilment about reorganising the confusion and returning order. Each time I succeed is a victory for order over chaos (albeit a tiny and insignificant one). It’s also a victory for persistence over hopelessness and logic over muddle.
Life could be described as being like a Rubik’s cube in that it can be chaotic, disorganised and frustrating. It is also unlikely that we will come across exactly the same permutation of experiences in life, even if there are similarities. And there are some people who seem better at life than others (often they also try to sell us their advice).
But of course life is not like a Rubik’s cube. It’s not always possible to solve it. We can’t simply apply the right moves in the right order and at the right time to resolve difficulties, trauma and horrific events. Logic can’t always be applied. Sometimes the answer to life is that it sucks and it’s awful and we can’t change our circumstances.
What we need then is not someone on a video (or bloggage) telling us how to solve things, we need people who resolve to be with us. I know that some people avoid people who are going through rough times because they don’t want to say the wrong thing, or even wouldn’t know where to start with saying anything. The good news is that words aren’t necessary. They don’t need to give us advice, answers, resources or solutions. They just need to have the wisdom to know that being with us is enough. A hug can say more than a thousand words. A reassuring smile can be louder than a 1000W speaker system. An empathetic tear can be more effective than hundreds of advice videos in helping us to cope.
That, for me, is one of the amazing things about Jesus. One of the ways he is described is ‘God with us’. And he has promised that by his Spirit he remains with us and in us. He experiences our deepest depths and darkest darkness with us. The Bible even says that when we can’t articulate words the Spirit translates the groans within us into prayers in the throneroom of heaven!
And Jesus asks his followers to emulate him and we can be ‘God with us’ to others. Yes there may be practical things we can do to help, but starting by ‘being with’ is an astonishingly powerful thing. When, last year, I was trying to recover from my heart surgery the best moment of the day was when my wife and family and friends came to visit. I learnt what Sally’s footsteps sounded like in the corridor and that lifted my spirits. They didn’t need to say or do anything, simply them being there was wonderful for me. And knowing that those who could not physically be there with me were praying for me was also an immense encouragement. The McFlurries and other treats that people brought me helped, of course, but just knowing that I was not alone and that I was loved was the best medicine.
I am not going to be as glib or frivolous as to suggest that knowing that God is with us is enough and that simply being with someone is all that is needed. Of course we want terrible circumstances to be improved and there may be things we can do to help with that (like when my nurse sister spoke to the ward staff on my behalf when I was in excruciating pain). We want to believe that there is hope – that even though God is with us as we walk through the darkest valley, the valley has an end. But knowing that we are not alone, we have not been abandoned, is a good start.
Who needs you to resolve to be there for them?
Be blessed, be a blessing
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?
Sit in dumbfounded silence
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
An unresolvable conundrum is this paradox: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” Is the answer ‘kaboom’?
There 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!
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 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.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 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. 9 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.
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
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