words fail me

candleThat is perhaps not the most optimistic title for a word-based bloggage!

But there are times when words do fail us. They can fail us when we are overwhelmed – by awe, by joy, by generosity, by tragedy and by grief – by emotions that are more powerful than words can express.

In the tragic circumstances of Peaches Geldof’s unexpected death her father Bob poignantly described the family as being “beyond pain” following the news*. I think I can understand what he is saying. I think it is a ‘words fail me’ moment.

So what do we do when words fail us?

First of all I think we should give up trying to find the words. Let the silence speak.

Secondly I think we should embrace the emotion. Accept that this is how we feel.

Thirdly I think we should take time. Don’t feel the need to hurry to words.

Fourthly I think we should find those who will sit with us and not feel the need to impose words on us either. People who can embrace the previous three concepts, people who will not feel awkward with silence.

The book of Job in the Bible helps us to explore how to respond in tragic circumstances. It teaches us what not to do: Job’s friends try to explain, rationalise, and apportion blame for all that has happened. And it teaches us what we can do – this is from the end of Job 2:

11 When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathise with him and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognise him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. 13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

We need people who will sit with us in our circumstances. Friends and family who will simply accompany us while we are unable to articulate our emotions. People who will weep when we weep and rejoice when we rejoice.

Let’s not assume that words are always the answer. Let’s not assume that we have to offer an explanation for everything. Let’s not assume that someone is asking the questions we have. Let’s not assume that God only inhabits words – he is also present in silence, in hugs, in tears, in companionship… in us.

When words fail, let our actions speak louder than words.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Pray for grieving families: especially those forced to conduct their grieving in the glare of public interest. You don’t have to use words.

inadequate prayers

Those who know me at all will know that it is rare that words fail me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the shooting at Sandy Hook School, Newtown, Connecticut, left me speechless. I wanted to express outrage at what had happened, despair at how helpless I felt, pain and grief for the families who had been bereaved, but all I could muster was silence and a lump in my throat.

In the aftermath of the event there have been many knee-jerk reactions. Some may have been wise and helpful, others were extremist and became white noise in the background of the grief. People have been posturing, blaming, demanding action.

I would like to comment on some of those opinions, but for the moment I won’t. Now is not the moment for political posturing it is a moment for prayerful love.

I pray for God’s blessing, peace, strength, love and presence to be with all who are grieving.

 

I feel that this is one of those times when the Holy Spirit takes our emotions and words we cannot express and turns them into prayer in the throne room of heaven.

If you want to know what to pray, here are some suggestions: May this strengthen the resolve of each one of us who is a follower of Jesus to cry out, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” May it inspire us to pray with hope, “Deliver us from evil.” May Jesus show us how we may be part of the answer to our own prayers.

Be blessed, be a blessing

shhhh

I’m back!

It seems like forever since I last wrote any bloggerel, and some of you may think it’s still too soon. No matter, I will follow my usual pattern and ignore the wishes of my readers – all three of you.

I have just come back from the last of my sabbatical visits. I have been visiting different Baptist churches across the country and talking with the leaders to listen to their stories of how they have adapted to, changed because of, and prepared for growth. It has been very encouraging and inspiring to do this and it is interesting to discover that there are similar themes in all of their stories.

No, this does not mean I am about to write a new bestseller on church growth. If I did it would be silly: perhaps led by dolphins and called ‘The Porpoise-Driven Church’ or about using air-to-air missiles in a ‘heat-seeker sensitive church’. But it does appear that there are some themes that may be helpful to us at our church.

And at the moment I am not going to tell you.

That’s not only because I am mean, but also because these thoughts are still a bit vague and woolly (yes I know that’s not stopped me before) and I feel it’s most appropriate to share them with the church leaders and wider church before I consider releasing them into the wild untamed blogosphere.

‘So, what’s the point of reading this bloggage?’ I hear you ask. (A very good question).

The point is that I have found God speaking consistent themes to me through various different sources:

Through my reading of 1 and 2 Timothy on my retreat; through many of the books I have read (‘sacred’ and ‘secular’); through the conversations I have had; through my observations and musings and through bouncing ideas and concepts off people. It is my experience that sometimes when I want to hear from God all I get is a deafening silence or the sound of Spiritual static. And other times I hear so much from different places that I almost hold my hands up in surrender and give in.

The silence / Spiritual static is a tough one. Sometimes that happens when we are at our weakest, our lowest, our most vulnerable. It’s reminiscent of the depressed prophet Elijah who found God in the ‘sound of sheer silence’. I wonder if at times God keeps silent vigil with us because words would be unhelpful.

As a teenager we had a Labrador, Bonnie, who was the family dog. I spent most time with her and walked her and she was a faithful companion to me. There were times when I was low and it was as if she sensed it. She would gently stroll up to where I was and nuzzle me. She might put her head on my lap if I was sitting down and look up at me. Or sometimes she would come and lie down on my feet (having turned around three times first). She would know that I did not want or need ‘bouncy dog’ or ‘playful dog’. It was as if she knew that I would simply appreciate the company.

There’s an element of that in what I am trying to describe about God’s silence. My experience is that sometimes I sense God’s presence nuzzling me in that way and it often sends a shiver down my spine. At other times I experience him through other people – directly as they are with me or indirectly through a song they have recorded or a book that they have written.

Or maybe we should pause and reflect and see if we can sense God smiling at us. I think many people think of him scowling and angry, but I reckon he smiles most of the time.

Of course there are times when we want to hear words, advice, answers and the hiss of static is all we receive. Perhaps it’s because we have tuned God out a bit and need to get back in practice at listening to him. It is possible that we are not listening to the right voice – he may be speaking to us through someone else or through a song and we are determined to hear him in our heads or in the pages of the Bible.

And yes, I think there are times when it’s just silence and static. It’s not that God is not there: it may be that the best thing for us is to pause, be still, relax and wait rather than rushing ahead with our plans and responses. Perhaps the only way God can do that is to keep quiet, like a teacher in a noisy classroom who stops talking and holds her hand up while waiting for the children to notice and join in.

When I was at Primary School (aged about 6) I had a teacher called Miss Bagley. On the last day before the Easter holidays one of the children in my class had given her an Easter Egg. Miss Bagley was bringing the day to a close and saying a few final words when I blurted out, “Don’t forget to eat your Easter Egg!”

Poor Miss Bagley had had a long term and I had interrupted her. Uncharacteristically she responded by saying, “Oh, be quiet you gasbag!”

I was stunned initially. I could not believe that she had said that to me. But by the time I met my Mum at the school gate I was in floods of tears. I was almost inconsolable at the thought that Miss Bagley had called me a gasbag. My Mum eventually got a vaguely comprehensible answer out of me and we went back into the school where I apologised for interrupting and Miss Bagley apologised for calling me a gasbag. (The irony of her name and the epithet she gave me did not strike me until I just wrote this down!)

Nearly 40 years later I still remember that moment. Miss Bagley had had to resort to drastic measures to make me stop and listen. Thankfully God doesn’t (often) call me a gasbag, but he may resort to drastic measures.

Just a thought.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

silence explained

In case you were wondering about the lack of fresh bloggerel yesterday, there is a very simple explanation…

I didn’t write anything.

And there’s a very simple explanation about why I didn’t write anything…

It was a Bank Holiday here in the UK and I took the day off. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t being reflective (you only have to check out the shiny top of my head to know I am always reflective) but I decided not to blog about it. Except that today’s first entry was written yesterday evening, so in fact I did post some bloggerel yesterday, it was simply posted online later.

Be even more blessed, be even more of a blessing!

(And yes, I have changed the look of the blog again!)

finding faith

Last night’s Deep Thought at our church was fascinating. ‘Deep Thought’ is the name for an open discussion group where we consider big questions of life, the Universe and everything. It is named after the computer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that was designed to answer that question and came up with the answer… I won’t spoil it for you by giving the answer, but I know some of you shouted it at the screen at that moment!

We were considering why it isn’t easier to find God. Most people in this country have declared themselves to be Christian (according the the latest census data) but seem to keep God at arm’s length or further away: only involving him when things go wrong and they need a helping hand. The vast majority of people who walk past our church each day probably don’t give God a second thought.

The discussion meandered gently through how we discover God in other people, within ourselves, in tough times, in unexpected places, in nature, even in the Bible (irony alert), and in scientific discovery! Actually he’s not quiet at all, and if you look honestly and openly you can find him!

But he seems to keep his distance as well. There are no big signs in the sky that declare that God made this. There are no lightning bolts from the sky when people ask if there is a God. And it struck me again this morning that Jesus seemed to spend a lot of his time telling people who had correctly identified him as the Son of God to be quiet and not tell anyone!

Why the distance? We felt that it is because God gives us free will and if he made himself too obvious that would override our freedom. He has to give us space and the opportunity to disbelieve in order for our choice to be absolutely our choice. Yet we also felt that God is poised at the edge of that distance, ready to respond immediately to anyone who starts to move towards him. The distance is no greater than it needs to be.

We commented on how many people had turned to praying for Fabrice Muamba. Quite what they will do with this new-found faith in God who hears prayer as he continues his almost miraculous recovery I am not sure. I suspect that for many people it will be a return to normal. But perhaps one or two will have edged closer to God as a result and will find him – in people, in experiences, in the Bible, wherever they look. Perhaps they will find him in us if we are free samples of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Apparently true story about finding in unexpected places:

A German “tourist” supposedly on a golf holiday, showed up at customs with his golf bag. While making idle chatter about golf, the customs official realized that the tourist did not know what a handicap is. The customs official asked the tourist to demonstrate his swing, which he did – backwards!

A substantial amount of narcotics was found in the golf bag.

talking with technology

One of my Christmas presents this year has been transforming the way that I interact with my computer. Dragon NaturallySpeaking is allowing me to dictate directly into e-mails, documents and even my blog. I have been very impressed with the accuracy of the program and as well as saving wear until my fingers is also enabling me to process information as I think it. This probably also saves time in the long run. I haven’t yet attempted to write a sermon with it (that’s today’s job) but so far I have written letters, added to my book manuscript, sent e-mails and spewed forth bloggerel.

I need to speak more clearly than normal and (sadly) needs to be in a relatively quiet environment. This means that I can’t have music playing in the background while I study if I am intending to dictate to my computer. I think I will miss that, but I’m sure get used to it.

Is this a ‘parablette’ about my relationship with God? I don’t want to stretch it too far as an analogy but the thought did occur to me that perhaps I need to be clearer in the way that I speak to God – articulating what I’m really thinking rather than what I think he wants me to say. it’s only when I’m honest with him and myself that my relationship with him can flourish in the way that it should.

Perhaps too I need to spend more time in relative quiet in order to concentrate on him. I have often promised myself that I will go on more retreats but so far since I have been in Colchester that has been more limited. Do I sense a new year’s resolution coming up? Maybe, although I prefer not to confine my personal improvement ambitions to the first few days of January each year. I think I’ll probably be revisiting this throughout the year.

There are a couple of small problems with dictating to the computer. It cannot always distinguish between when you are speaking to somebody else and talking to it and I can find that (forgetting that the microphone is still on) I am will talk to a member of the family and then turned back to the screen to find all manner of garbage has been produced. [Insert your own sermon writing jokes here]. It also struggles to interpret coughs and sneezes for what they are so it may be less useful when I have a cold. Who would have thought that mucus could frustrate technology?!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

patiently impatient

Dear Bloggists

Today’s apparent silence has been because someone had broken the internet. Or at least the part of it to which we are supposedly connected. This is becoming a frustratingly frequent occurrence. I am impatient for them to fix it.

Isn’t amazing how quickly we assimilate technology and start to rely on it? It was less than 15 years ago that I got my first computer with a dial-up modem (6k!) and now I get frustrated that I don’t get the ‘up to’ 20MB broadband speeds. I am impatient when things don’t download instantly.

It was less than three years ago that I got my first internet-friendly phone, and now I am frustrated that my Blackberry is not 3G and is slow at connecting to the www, never mind that it is connecting far faster than my first modem! I am impatient to connect.

It is easy for us to have the same attitude to what God does in our lives and through us…

We have four people preparing for Believer’s Baptism at the moment and I am thrilled to bits. But I want more.

We have regular newcomers coming along to our church, and it’s a joy to meet them and for them to join us for this part of their journey of faith. But I want to see more.

There are people who are coming to faith in our church, which is FANTASTIC! But I would love to see lots more.

Is it wrong to be impatient with God and what he is doing? Or is it the case that he could do a considerable amount more through us if we stopped trying to do things on our own and joined in with what he wants to do? If he wasn’t so gracious he would probably be getting quite impatient with me!

A man lay sprawled across three entire seats in the posh theatre. When the usher came by and noticed this, he whispered to the man, “Sorry, sir, but you’re only allowed one seat.”

The man groaned but didn’t budge. The usher became impatient. (There’s the link)

“Sir, if you don’t get up from there I’m going to have to call the manager.”

Again, the man just groaned, which infuriated the usher who turned and marched briskly back up the aisle in search of his manager. In a few moments, both the usher and the manager returned and stood over the man.

Together the two of them tried repeatedly to move him, but with no success. Finally, they summoned the police.

The copper surveyed the situation briefly then asked, “All right buddy, what’s your name?”

“Sam,” the man moaned.

“Where are you from, Sam?”

With pain in his voice, Sam replied, “The balcony.”

I can’t hear you…

In our new morning sermon series on prayer we are looking to be honest and (I hope) practical. So next Sunday morning we are looking at praying ‘when God is silent’. My evangelicalCandle light 2 hackles instinctively go up when I come across a statement like that. Of course he is not silent. God is always communicating with us.

But then I have to give myself a reality-check. The reality is that sometimes God is silent. Sometimes it seems like prayers are bouncing back off the ceiling. Sometimes it seems like the all-powerful, all-knowing God is playing a cruel game of cosmic hide-and-seek and I am losing badly.

In times gone past I may have been tempted to offer glib and trite explanations for this such as: “If God is distant, who moved?” but all that does is add guilt to despair. It may be that I need to refocus myself on God, but praying helps us to do that anyway so it seems a bit of a circular argument that is spinning so fast it’s difficult to get onto the roundabout.

So what can we say?

It is tempting to say that you should come along next Sunday morning and find out, or check out the sermon online next week. But that’s as much a cop-out as the glib and trite explanations.

So instead I point you to a prayer that was prayed in extreme circumstances.

“Abba, Father, he said, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)

Did God answer that prayer? There was no voice from heaven or lightning bolt answer.

Jesus’ honesty is remarkable, given who he was. Given who he was and is, his ability to pray ‘not what I will’ is astonishing. Yet on the cross he cried out, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” He felt alone, abandoned, isolated.

The reality of this situation was that God was still God. The world did not stop turning even at this darkest of dark hours. Somehow God the Father gave Jesus the Son the strength to endure the unendurable, to come through the unimaginable and experience resurrection. Even when he felt alone and his prayers were not receiving the answer for which he longed and cried out in anguish there was a glimmer of hope that was unextinguishable.

There are no easy, quick answers. Often there are no easy, quick answers to our prayers either because we are asking for the wrong thing, looking in the wrong places, asking the impossible or even because the time is not right.

But it is never our lack of faith that means God is silent. He only asks us to have enough faith to pray, and even before we can utter the words his Spirit has translated our emotions and intentions into prayer in the throne room of heaven.

It is my experience that sometimes before I receive an answer I need an encounter with God to prepare me for that answer. In 1 Kings 19 we find the uber-man of God, Elijah. He was full of doubt, anger and perhaps even clinically depressed, and he found God’s presence in the sound of sheer silence, not in loud and ostentatious activity. What Elijah got in answer to a rant at God was silence. But it was silence that was drenched in the presence of God. God was in the silence. God was the silence.

I dare to believe that God was in the silence of Gethsemane.

I believe that God is in the silence for me if I am prepared to set aside my pain, anger, questions and doubt and seek him.

Sometimes what we need from God is not an answer, it is his presence.

Be blessed, be a blessing.