news of the world

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.

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

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever.

(NIVUK)

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

solving or resolving?

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.

Rubik's cube 3

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

crouching God, hidden pain

This is a slightly edited version of my ‘thought for the week’ yesterday – sent to the Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association…

11/9/2018 is a landmark day (or 9/11/2018 if you are American). (Cue trumpet fanfare, ticker-tape parade and 21 gun salute… or maybe not). That day was the last day of my cardiac rehabilitation process. While I am still not 100% back to where I was before the surgery and still have one or two further appointments, I reckon I am about 95% and today is a significant milestone along the way that demonstrates the progress that has been made since my surgery back in February. I am now back at work full time.

Immense thanks go to my amazing wife, Sally, who has been a wonderful support and encourager throughout the time. Immense thanks go to the surgical, medical and rehab teams at the Essex Cardio-Thoracic Centre in Basildon who have looked after me incredibly. And immense thanks go to you and your churches for the many prayers that have been offered on my behalf – I have been acutely conscious of them and am sure that part of my progress is attributable to them. But most of all immense thanks go to my Lord who has been with me from start to finish along the difficult journey, and of course continues to do so. And I have discovered a new way in which he is with us.

SilhouetteYou may recall that in my recent Thoughts for the Week (not published here) I have been reflecting on Psalm 40. In verse 1 David wrote: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” In my first reflection on this psalm I noted how it must have felt to David to have God give him his attention. But since then I have done some more research on the Psalm and have discovered that our English translation is somewhat inadequate, albeit literally correct. The sense in the original Hebrew language is not of God turning to face David as he was in the slimy pit so much as ‘he crouched down to me and listened to me crying’. The image is of a loving parent who sees their child in tears and gets down on the floor to be with them in their sorrow so that they know that they are not alone. There’s no suggestion of wiping away tears or words of comfort, or attempting to explain what’s going on, just a God who crouches down with us and listens to our crying. That’s an astonishing thing for David to write about God when the gods of other nations were warlike and needing to be invoked or remote and needing to be appeased. I love it, and I have experienced it.

9/11 is the anniversary of the day when terrorists hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and another crashed as the passengers sought to prevent greater tragedy. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

There are many in today’s world who are victims of natural disasters, human violence and tragic circumstances. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

I am conscious that some of you and some of your church are going through deep, dark valleys at the moment. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

May we all experience and bring his reassuring presence in our life and ministry.

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.

Christmas present

As I am recycling at the moment (eg Nora the Noisy Angel) I thought I would recycle a ‘thought for the week’ I sent to the Ministers in the Eastern Baptist Association this week.

giftI had a clever mailing from a well-known Swedish furniture store come through my letter box last week. On the front it said, “Christmas is all about the present.” I groaned inwardly and decided not to open it because it was so far from what Christmas is all about. I was about to recycle it but curiosity got the better of me and I opened it. The text inside reads, “It’s the present (not the presents) that counts. And those moments with loved ones are the best of all…”

“That’s clever,” I thought to myself, “I wonder if I can include that in a Christmas message?” And then I started to reflect on whether it really is all about the present:

Advent is a season of time-travel. We travel back in time to the period before BC became AD and anticipate Jesus’ arrival. We empathise with the longing of his people for God to act. We hope and pray for a better future. We lament. We ache. We wait.

Christmas Carol Services and Nativity Plays are wonderfully nostalgic (which is why they are attended by the regular ‘once a year at Christmas’ part of our church family). They are a familiar touching place with the Unchangeable Story (which we soon discover if we dare to change things too radically). Of course they can also be incredibly poignant and painful for those who are reminded of past loss. In these moments the past is triggering our emotional response to the present.

And yet, in the midst of it, is the small voice of a child crying in a cattle feeding trough reminding us that this is the season of God, the eternal One, with us – Immanuel . In the present.

Christmas really is all about the present, God present with us.

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