dubious dates

datesNo, not that sort of dates.

And not romantic dates… or rather, yes, romantic dates but not that sort of date either.

Let me explain. The curmudgeonly part of me occasionally got a bit cynical about some of the anniversaries that are celebrated nowadays. There seems to have been a slide towards esoteric and trivial reasons to celebrate something. It used to be things that we would celebrate things like 100 years since someone’s birth or death; or 200 years since the founding of an organisation; or 50 years since a significant event.

But then it seemed to slither down that slippery slope towards the banal and we started celebrating every 25 years: 25, 50, 75, 175 and so on. And now we seem to be invited to celebrate any anniversary with a ‘0’ at the end – 10, 20, 90, and so on. Is it just me that thought that this is a bit much? Is it just me that cynically wondered whether it was more about marketing than celebrating?

But I have changed my mind about these dubious dates. You see I think we should take every possible opportunity to celebrate. In fact we shouldn’t even wait for a special anniversary, we should celebrate whenever we can and whatever we can.

Celebrate the fact that you woke up this morning (even if you felt under the weather).

Celebrate the person who last made you laugh or smile.

Celebrate the food that you most enjoy eating.

Celebrate what you appreciate about other people.

And so on.

And in celebrating we can also express gratitude – to the people around us who bless us, encourage us, serve us, love us and stand with us; to those who have gone before us in life who have helped to bring light and joy into the world; and, dare I suggest, to God who made us, loves us and wants to be involved positively in all aspects of our life in the same way that a good parent wants to encourage, bless, support and love their children, who has made himself known in Jesus and who is with us by his Spirit.

I have often written about having asking God’s Spirit to help me grow an attitude of gratitude but now I am also asking God’s Spirit to cultivate and integrate a desire to celebrate.

And that leads me to the romantic aspect of the dubious dates (and possibly where my wife will roll her eyes when she reads this). I am not going to get all mushy and soppy here but I have worked out that today is the 10,000th day since Sally and I got married! And that’s something to celebrate. I should point out that I have not been keeping a running score since the day we got married – I got the internet’s help in doing the calculation a couple of months ago.  I am not telling you to brag or boast, but in order to invite you to find something to celebrate: in the Bible we (in churches at least) are encouraged to rejoice with those who rejoice as well as weeping with those who weep.

So why not join me and seek God’s help to cultivate and integrate a desire to celebrate, and do so with an attitude of gratitude (and possibly a surfeit of rhymes!)?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

joy

laughingI think joy is seriously underrated. It’s associated with all sorts of physical actions: smiling, laughter, feeling good. It has brothers and sisters and cousins: happiness, humour, lightness, pleasantness… You can sometimes see it in a person’s face, in their eyes, in their smile, and even in their posture and gait!

But joy is special. Joy, while it links to the emotions, is not a simple emotion. Happiness comes and goes, it can be superficial. But joy is more foundational. It underlies a lot of life. It can be there even when we are sad. It can be present even when we feel nothing. It sometimes breaks through and surfaces in laughter, smiling, a good feeling, but it is not always felt.

Joy is a an attitude as well as an emotion. It is a way of looking at life that says, “I know that there is more to life than this and I will not let my life be defined by the superficial.”

For followers of Jesus we acknowledge that joy is from God. It is one of the things that his Spirit nurtures and grows within us. It is that twinkle in the eye, that brief knowing smile, that silent chuckle when we remember all that Jesus has done for us and that he calls us his friends, that because of his death God calls us his children. And that cannot be taken away from us. Which is why it can be there when we are sad, or when we feel nothing. As our awareness of how much God loves us grows so the joy grows – just as we experience human joy when we know that we are loved by another.

There’s an old joke that some Christians have a deep joy: it’s so deep they can’t find it. There’s a smidgeon of truth there, but please God none of us have buried it so deep that we can no longer experience it. And if we have, let’s pray that he brings it closer to the surface – start by re-engaging with Jesus!

Be blessed, be a blessing

joy

laughing lady
Not a SWEG!

I can remember one of my Ministers when I was a teenager joking about Christians who have a SWEG: slimy, wet, evangelical grin. He was commenting on the superficial artificial saccharine smile that we share with one another to convey that we have everything under control and that we love Jesus.

I wonder if the root cause of SWEGs can be found in one of the fruits of the Spirit – joy. We sell God short if we reduce that to ‘feeling happy’. In our ‘instant gratification’ culture we find that happiness is something to pursue (especially if you are American). But the reason it needs to be pursued is that it is elusive, it is transitory, it is like sand that you can hold in your hand but will run through your fingers so that you need to scoop it up again.

Joy is not happiness. Don’t get me wrong, you can be joyful when you are happy. And Christians can be happy (honestly!) But you can also be joyful when you are sad. Joy is not primarily about our emotional state: it is about our spiritual state. We are joyful because of Jesus. If you read the Gospels you find that many times people who met him left rejoicing.  It is the natural response to an encounter with him. His death and resurrection are the cause of astonishing joy. He is the source of our joy because of who he is and what he has said and done.

God’s Spirit grows this fruit as he reminds us of Jesus and all that he has done for us. Spiritual joy is perhaps best described as a state of awareness of Jesus. It is a recognition that no matter what life can throw at us it cannot take Jesus from us, nor can it take us from him. It is a recognition that he is at work in us by his Spirit. That is why the early Christians were able to rejoice when they were persecuted for Jesus’ sake. Our joy does not depend on transitory circumstances it is based on the absolute certainty of our faith.

Be blessed, be a blessing

A mangy looking guy walks into a very classy restaurant and orders a steak. The waitress says: “I’m sorry, but I don’t think you can pay for your meal.”

The guy admits, “You’re right. I don’t have any money, but if I show you something you haven’t seen before, will you give me my supper?”

The waitress, both curious and compassionate, says, “Only if what you show me isn’t risque.”

“Deal!” says the guy and reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a hamster. He puts the hamster on the ground and it runs across the room, directly to a piano. The hamster then proceeds to climb up the piano, and starts playing Gershwin songs.

The waitress says, “You’re right. I’ve never seen anything like that before. That hamster is truly good on the piano.” The guy sits back and enjoys a fine steak supper with all the trimmings.

Shortly thereafter, he asks the waitress, “Can I have a piece of that fine blueberry pie I see on the dessert cart over there?”

“Only if you got another miracle up your sleeve”, says the waitress. The guy reaches into his coat again and pulls out a frog. He puts the frog on the table, and the frog starts to sing up a storm!

A stranger from a nearby table runs over to the guy and offers him $300 for the frog. The guy says “It’s a deal.” He takes the three hundred and gives the stranger the frog. The stranger runs out of the restaurant with dollar signs in his eyes and a big smile on his face.

The waitress says to the guy “Are you some kind of nut? You sold a singing frog for $300? It must have been worth millions!”

“No”, says the guy. “The hamster is also a ventriloquist.”

the antidote to envy

You might just have noticed that the Olympic Games are taking place in Britain at the moment. (Technically they are the ‘London Games’ but events are taking place all over the country so I am widening the net to be inclusive.) Given how difficult it has been to get tickets for events, it is interesting to me how many of my friends have managed to get them. I know this because they keep posting photos on Facebook and Tweeting about how it is at the different events and venues.

It would be possible to feel quite jealous of these people. The steady flow of photos and comments could feel like salt was being rubbed into the wounds of our failure to get any tickets.

But actually I am thrilled when I see and read these things. The joy and excitement my friends are experiencing is quite infectious. I know that they are not boasting or thumbing their noses at those who have not got tickets. They want to share their excitement with their friends.

When we are not as privileged as others it is easy to allow jealousy and envy to lead to bitterness and resentment. I think the antidote is in the Bible: ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’. If we have an open-hearted attitude to others and seek to empathise and share their lives our lives are enriched by the lives others live. If we are happy because others are happy then there is less room for envy. Even the ‘weeping with those who weep’ is enriching as it helps us to stand with and alongside our friends who are in difficult circumstances and that is a real privilege. How do we do that? We seek to love people as Jesus loves them. Ask God to give you his live and grace in abundance.

Be blessed, be a blessing (and keep posting the photos of the Olympics if you are blessed to attend).

Some Olympic-related (vaguely) Tweets from Milton Jones (@themiltonjones):

In South London man in white track-suit didn’t appreciate me trying to put out his Cornetto which was on fire.

And so the Olympic Games begin. I’m particularly looking forward to the Mental Gymnastics.

Olympic show jumping: have just put bet on little door opening in back of Greek horse and soldiers coming out to steal medals.

They don’t like you playing Ludo in those Games Lanes do they?

‘Ye Shiwen denies doping.’ So Do Ping came second?

contagious infectiousness

There are some things we do that are infectious. Some of them are involuntary. If you have ever tried to suppress a yawn you’ll know that it’s impossible. The yawn decides when it’s coming and there’s nothing you can do about it.

But why is it that when you see someone else yawn (or suppress a yawn) you then feel the need to yawn too? My theory is not that you are indicating boredom too, but that a yawn is your body’s way of increasing its oxygen intake to increase energy levels and when you see someone else yawn your subconscious thinks it would be a good idea for you to increase your oxygen levels too.

Isn’t it a good thing that sneezing isn’t infectious in the same way? The first sign of pollen or a cold would trigger a mexican wave of sneezing that could shake the world off its axis!

But there are other things that are equally infectious. Laughter can be very contagious. A friend of mine and I were sharing a retreat at Worth Abbey a few years ago. Our idea was to spend the morning praying and reflecting on our own in the morning and then share with each other after lunch and pray for each other.

The monks had invited us to join them for lunch, but only as we were about to go into the dining room were we told that it was a silent lunch. Steve and I realised that this was potentially disastrous because we find each other’s laughter very contagious and we were worried that we would destroy the atmosphere in a fit of giggling. We decided to sit out of each other’s eyesight.

All went well during the meal. By the way, did you know that in a silent lunch you have to look out for the needs of those around you because they can’t ask you to pass the ketchup or salt? Pethaps we should do more things together in silence!

Anyway, the meal was not completely silent. A novice monk switched on a microphone and started reading from a book as we ate. It was a biography of Pugin – the church architect – and he was reading it in such a way that it sounded like Lord of the Rings! That thought got me smirking inside.

Suddenly, towards the end of the main course, the novice monk announced solemnly, “End of book!” And he slammed the book shut.

That was it. I felt an irrepressible giggle rising from within me and, worse still, could see out of the corner of my eye that Steve’s shoulders were shaking as he tried to control a similar urge. The more we tried not to laugh the harder it became and the more we sensed the other struggling to control ourselves the stronger the impulse became. How we managed not to end up rolling around on the floor waving our legs in the air I have no idea.

After the meal the monks invited us to join them for drinks and laughed at us and with us.

But there’s one more thing we can do that is infectious. There’s a semi-trite saying: ‘If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.’ I think there’s something to be said for that. Not artificial, but if you have a smile, don’t feel afraid of sharing it. God invented them as ways of us blessing others and sharing joy.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that it may escalate into a snigger-fest, but that’s a risk worth taking!

Be blessed, be a blessing. 🙂

Upson Downs Baptist Church

Last night I was invited by a friend in the church to attend a football match.

Free of charge.

With free parking.

In an executive box.

It was a prize that he had won for himself and nine friends.

It was a Colchester United match.

We were excited and animated as we entered the box and looked out on the pitch from a wonderful vantage-point.

Against Barnet.

In the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Colchester lost.

Did you sense the rise and fall of emotions there? In the best tradition of patronising clergy ‘children’s talks’ I will say the obvious… “Life’s like that isn’t it, girls and boys?” But not just life in general; church life is like that.

We have a wonderful service on a Sunday morning where God speaks to a number of people who were there and then hear of someone who’s experiencing a personal tragedy in their life that brings us back down to earth with a bump.

We celebrate and rejoice as someone professes their faith in Jesus and is baptised and then have a difficult (and lengthy) discussion about the colour of the new carpet in the church toilets.

We hear encouraging news from mission agencies and missionaries that we support and then have to consider a difficult financial budget that may mean we have to cut our support.

We gladly welcome new members into the church at a Church Meeting and then listen to a report that our Church roof will need replacing.

Does it ever seem like we are taking two steps forwards only to find that we have to take two steps back again? We should not be surprised. The evil within the world always wants to undermine and destroy what God is doing and I think the most effective way he does that is by distracting us. Very easily we can find ourselves distracted from what God is up to by issues and problems and we forget the positives and blessings.

I am not saying that the problems and difficulties are not important. Not at all. They almost always need addressing wisely and pastorally sensitive responses. But don’t allow them to distract you from the positive things that God is doing. One of the things I was advised to do when I was training as a Minister was to have a file of letters and cards that I receive that are encouragements in ministry. Just knowing it exists is a blessing – I very rarely open it to read it, although I do add to it from time to time.

But I don’t always get letters and cards to put in the file. So I am starting to pause and reflect. In the brilliant TV sitcom Amanda one of the characters regularly picks up a cut out of Heather Small, the singer, and sings, “What have you done today to make you feel proud?”.

I don’t do that, but I consciously try to ask myself, “What has God done today to make me rejoice?” Keeping those things in mind helps keep the distractions in their right perspective. They are important, but they are not as important as God and what he is doing.

A while ago I wrote a sketch for the Baptist Union of Great Britain based loosely on Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the rebels ask “What have the Romans ever done for us?” and then proceed to list all the many benefits of the Roman occupation. The sketch was set in the fictional Upson Downs Baptist Church, in a Church Meeting where a member asked, “What has Home Mission* ever done for us?” Other members then answered that question themselves as they reflected. As I wrote the sketch I was impressed by how much was done with limited resources – God was at work in significant ways and we took them for granted.

What has God done today to make you rejoice? Have you taken those things for granted?

****************

Fred called a church and asked to speak to the Head Hog of the Trough.

Secretary: “How rude! I’ll have you know we would NEVER EVER refer to our pastor as a hog.”

Fred: “Okay, then just take a message. Tell him I’ve come into a bit of money so I was calling to give your church £10,000.”

Secretary: “Well hold the phone! I think I see that big fat pig coming down the hall right now.”

*Home Mission is the generic name given to the funding of mission through BUGB.

soggy joy

Soooo.

On Sunday morning at our church we had a service of Believer’s Baptism. Three young people declared their allegiance to Jesus in words and actions. It is always a joy to baptise someone, but it is especially special when one of them is your son.

Thomas being baptised, and yes he
IS that much taller than me

I decided that to be fair to Thomas and so it was about him and his faith in Jesus rather than about me I would not make any special ‘dad/son’ references and baptise him like everyone else. It also helped me avoid getting choked up and emotional. (I did feel it on occasions during the service but was able to keep myself under control).

After the baptisms I was able to give Thomas a big hug and then had to go off to do Ministerish things, so was not able to talk much to him at that time. It was probably a good thing because some friends of his had come to support him and he wanted to spend some time with them.

On the way home in the car, however, it was just the two of us. Lots of people had said to me how proud I must have been and what a thrill it would have been to baptise Thomas and they were right. It did mean a bit more to me than baptising Sarah and Amy (but that was still fantastic too!). I reflected on the experience and reckon I feel a bit like (in a small, imperfect way) God the Father when Jesus was baptised and the voice from heaven declared, “This is my son, whom I love. I am well-pleased with him.”

Amen!

Apparently true story – from t’internet
One day my youngest daughter phoned. “Dad,” she laughed, “you’d have cracked up today in our church. During a baptism one of the older ladies lost her wig, and the pastor picked it up like some drowned rat and handed it to her as she stepped out of the water. We had to sing about two dozen hymns before she’d come out to meet the congregation. It was a gas!”

Definitely true stories
These two accounts of baptism difficulties happened to two ministers I know, whose identity will remain hidden if they pay the sums required into my numbered Swiss bank account.

A minister used to wear fisherman’s waders under robes when he was baptising people. This enabled him to keep his suit on and make a very quick change after the baptisms. He stopped this practice when he discovered a hole in the bottom of one leg… once he had got into the pool and the leg started filling with water. This left him with restricted movement because his leg was so heavy, difficulty climbing out of the pool at the end, and a soaking wet pair of trousers and no dry ones to wear after the service.

Another minister had finished baptising and had gone to change in the vestry at the back while the congregation sang a hymn. He had to get back to lead communion that was following the baptisms. He panicked when he realised he could not find his dry underpants and in the end decided the best he could do was wring out the wet ones and wear them – after all he had a dark suit.

He went back into church while the congregation finished the hymn and felt a sniffle. He pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his nose only to discover that he was holding his dry underpants. To his credit he was unfazed, blew his nose in them and put them back into his pocket.

It may be going wrong if…
The RNLI has to become involved in some unexpected way.
The service is held at “Splash Mountain Water Park.”
The minister has to wear a frogman outfit complete with air tanks into the water.
As the baptism begins the organist plays the theme from JAWS.
The deacons show up with fishing gear.

The minister shouts, “Someone call a plumber!”
The person who has filled the baptismal pool and heated the water turns up with an ice pick.