sailing grace

If you’re more than an infrequent visitor here you will know that I own a 6 metre sailing yacht, based on a traditional America’s Cup yacht. Sorry, that should read I own a model 6 metre sailing yacht, based on a traditional America’s Cup yacht. There is a small (or should I say large) difference.

My yacht (I call her Charis because it means ‘Grace’ although she doesn’t have the name on her hull) is still big by model yacht standards. When fully rigged she is about 7′ (just over 2 metres) from the bottom of the keel to the top of the mast and she is about 5′ long (about 1.5 metres).

In case you don’t know about these things the only controls I have are for the rudder (which way to go) and how far to let out the sails (which controls speed and helps balance the boat in the wind). Sailing Charis by radio control is usually incredibly relaxing. She glides through the water and is incredibly responsive to the gentlest touches of the controls.

When I am sailing her I am trying to see how close I can sail to the wind, how cleanly I can go around a buoy in the lake, how fast I can make her go, and enjoying the sound of the waves lapping against her hull as she serenely slides past me.

But the other day I took Charis to one of my usual sailing lakes and I was unsure about whether even to take her out of the boot of my car. The weather forecast had said that the wind would be gentle, but it was much stronger than the forecast had said. In the end because I had driven for 25 minutes to get there I decided to give it a go. Perhaps the wind would be gentler down on the water.

The wind had been flapping the sails vigorously as I rigged the boat and I was still uneasy as I applied the finishing touches. I checked the boat slowly, making sure that I had everything ‘ship shape’ before picking her up and lowering her gently into the water.

Then, with a gentle shove from me, she slid off from the side of the lake and the wind caught her sails.

And she shot off! The wind was no calmer at the lakeside and Charis heeled over alarmingly as a gust caught her. I had to be very attentive on the controls and either correct with the rudder or let the sails out if she looked like she was going too far over.

Sailing downwind was not too bad as the sails were out fully and the boat was being driven down the lake. But tacking back up the lake was nerve-wracking with the strength of the wind and then sudden stronger gusts that threatened to capsize the boat.

Instead of finding the experience relaxing or exhilirating I found it stressful and could feel myself tensing up. After 5 minutes I decided to call it quits and brought the boat back to the side of the lake, picked her up out of the water and put her back on her stand to de-rig her.

I was disappointed – the experience had not been what I had hoped for. I was annoyed with myself- had I been more experienced I might have been able to cope more, but there was also the question about whether I should have listened to my first instinct and not taken the boat out of the boot.

Reflecting on that experience just now I wondered about coping in stormy seas. I know it wasn’t a stormy sea, but for the scale of boat I have and my level of experience it was too much. We can find ourselves in situations like that. Sometimes it’s because of a decision we have made, sometimes it’s because of circumstances outside our control.

So what do we do? Give up, pack up and go home? (That’s not always possible). Persevere and hope to survive? (Not enjoyable).

I reckon what I should have done is get someone who knew what they were doing to come and help me. Instead of working to the limits of my own experience and confidence I could have drawn on the experience and confidence of someone else*.

One of the blessings of being part of church is that there are usually people there who have experience of life beyond your own. There are people willing to accompany you on life’s journey. Sometimes they will just be there for you as you sail in the rough weather and whisper words of encouragement. Other times they may be able to help you out by temporarily taking the controls or telling you what you could do. And even just knowing that you are part of a supportive community is really a blessing: I have literally just received a text message from a Christian friend asking how I am doing!

Of course it’s not just churches that can offer this sort of thing. We find it in families and in friendships and other organisations and I hope you have that sort of support somewhere. But churches ought to be groups of people who do this instinctively. I would even suggest that if we don’t find it in a church that purports to be a free sample of Jesus (who told us that loving one another is right up there as a priority for life) then there’s something wrong.

Because life isn’t always plain sailing… be blessed, be a blessing

*I did wonder about doing this as there is a model shop in the town where I was sailing but I was unsure whether anyone would have helped from there. Perhaps I should have joined a model sailing club.

retainers

You may recall that I have had tooth scaffolding for a while (see https://nukelear.me.uk/2016/08/18/tooth-scaffolding/ for example). The purpose was to straighten out my teeth that had decided that they didn’t like being where God had intended them to be and had moved, little by little, to a place where they were actually causing me pain.

A couple of weeks ago the tooth scaffolding was finally removed. The treatment was finished – and successful! I was so pleased to be able to eat without pain and without having to spend time cleaning out the debris afterwards. But more than that I was delighted that my teeth looked more like they are supposed to.

My dentist had warned me that unless we take longer-term remedial action then the teeth may drift back into their old positions. So she attached some metalwork to the inside of my teeth to keep them in place, and she created some retainers for me to wear at night. You see when the braces moved the teeth back to where they should be the roots were loosened slightly and there’s a possibility that the teeth may simply revert to the previous painful position if they were not kept in place long enough to become more solidly rooted again and lose the inclination to incline.

The retainers are necessarily a very snug fit. And each evening when I put them in I can sense that they are gently nudging any rogue teeth back to where they should be. It’s not a massive movement but it reminds me of how things could shift if I don’t do what the dentist said.

20170223_112709What are your retainers? All of us can fall into bad, harmful habits that hurt others or ourselves. And while God offers all of us forgiveness, fresh starts and the opportunity to live life the way it is intended to be lived we also still have the tendency to drift back into those things that are less than the best. So alongside God’s forgiveness, fresh starts and the opportunity to live life the way it is intended to be lived we will be best able to continue in that way if we install retainers. For the most part they are common sense…

It could be a daily routine to remind ourselves to keep short accounts with God and others – I use brushing my teeth as a reminder.

It could be asking someone else to pray for us and giving them permission to ask us challenging questions about how we are doing. I have a Spiritual Director who does that for me.

It could be that we make a decision not to put ourselves in temptation’s way – it would not be wise for someone who finds it difficult to resist the temptation to overindulge in chocolate to work in a sweet shop.

Above all I find that keeping close to Jesus makes the most difference. If he’s just someone I think about for an hour on a Sunday he’s not going to make as much difference in my life as if he’s someone with whom I am constantly in conversation. He gives us his Spirit as a retainer – to help us to follow him – but we do have to pay attention and respond to his prompting!

What are your retainers?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

prayer support

I’ve just been writing my monthly prayer diary, which is sent to a group of people who have offered to pray for me and the Ministry to which God has called me. As I was about to send it out I remembered that my Grandparents told me that they used to pray for me every day. I didn’t doubt it for one moment.

spot the torch
Crowds of people in Colchester cheering on the Olympic Torch Relay

Of course I am certain that they also prayed daily for their children, their other grandchildren, and quite a lot of other people and situations around the world. That was one of their qualities and gifts to others. And whilst I do know that many other people were praying for me, it was one of the things I felt I had lost when they died and joined the great crowd of witnesses cheering on from the galleries of heaven.

So now, knowing that there are others who have promised to pray for me daily, I realise I have not lost that spiritual support and encouragement of others, it’s just been passed on to others. I try to offer the same support to others too.

Yesterday morning I was preaching from Mark 2, the righteous vandals who ripped open a roof to lower their paraplegic friend in front of Jesus. Among the many things that are significant in that passage, as I was speaking it struck me afresh how Jesus acted “When he saw their faith.” Not the faith of the man on the mattress in front of him, but the faith of the four friends peering anxiously through the hole they had made in the roof. It reminded me of how we bring other people into the presence of Jesus in prayer and in faith, and God acts in response to that faith.

So, if you have ever prayed for me, thank you for your faith. If you pray for other people. Thank you for your faith. If you are in need of prayer, and know that others are praying for you, be encouraged that God acts in response to the faith of those who bring people into his presence.

And how much faith do you need? Just enough to pray – God does the rest!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

not just there for the nasty things in life

I hope you will forgive what might be self-indulgence, but I am going to inflict a little more of my sermon to myself which I preached at my induction last week, looking at 1 Corinthians 3:1-9:

Paul wrote some harsh words to the church in Corinth. The comedian Eddie Izzard has a very funny routine in which he imagines the postman in Corinth trying to get someone to sign for the letter from Paul. None of them want to because they know that he is going to be telling them off.

Nick, a Regional Minister’s role is not to write letters telling people off. But let’s be honest. At different times all churches, like Corinth, have their challenges and difficulties. The Christians in Corinth struggled because of different factions, and because of perceived or assumed super spirituality. Other churches in the New Testament era had other problems. And that has continued throughout almost 2000 years of church history. I don’t think that there are many problems that we face today which have not been faced by churches at some point in history.

Part of your role as a Regional Minister is, to appropriate the words from the wedding service, to help nurture and support churches for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health.

The ad was so successful that they wrote the book (available from Amazon.co.uk and other booksellers)

Some of you will be old enough to remember the TV advert for Yellow Pages in which an old man is phoning around bookshops looking for a copy of Fly Fishing by JR Hartley. Eventually he finds one and leaves his name: JR Hartley. The strapline of the advert is: “Good old yellow pages, not just there for the nasty things in life.”

Nick, I think you should have that strapline too: “Not just there for the nasty things in church life.”

But recognise that you are there too for the nasty things in church life. Not to be nasty, but to be there in the nastiness with the churches.

When you read the passage in 1 Corinthians 3 you can read it as quite an admonishment from Paul: “I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed you are still not ready.”

Ouch. But look at it another way. Paul had not abandoned them, even though they were somewhat dysfunctional. And Paul recognised their situation and offered them what they needed – milk, not solid food. You don’t feed babies solid food, it’s not what they need as they are growing.

Nick, part of Regional Ministry is to help feed churches appropriately. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to ministry at local level let alone Regional. Come alongside each church in their own context and feed them what they need to help them to grow.

Be blessed, be a blessing

who are you going to call?

In the last couple of days I have had 2 experiences of things needing fixing.

I bought a new car radio for Sally’s car as a birthday present. I was fairly confident of my ability to fit the new radio and managed to get it seated properly and connected properly with only a small quantity of blood lost. But when I switched it on, although there was power, no sound came out of the speakers. I knew I had plugged it in correctly and was at a loss to work out what else I could do. In the end I took it to a local car radio installer and they were able to work out what the problem was (a previous installation (not me) had connected some loose speaker wires to the power supply in the car!). They sorted out within an hour or so and Sally is now very happy that she can listen to her CDs and radio once again in her car.

In the process of detecting the fault the radio installer also found that it would be relatively easy, providing I can find the correct connectors, to reconnect the rear speakers to the system, further enhancing Sally’s listening experience. He drew me a picture of what I’m looking for, showed me the place in the car where it needed to go, and suggested that I might be able to pick it up at a car breakers yard.

And then this morning the catch broke on our tumble dryer. It is within warranty but only for parts and the fixed fee for the engineer to come out and repair it is £95. It’s only a small catch although one of the broken parts is still inside the locking mechanism. Sally spoke with the manufacturers and initially was going to book an engineer to come and replace the part. However she asked how much the parts would be and found that they would be significantly cheaper than the cost of the engineer and that they would be sent on a 7 day return basis so that if we found we could not fit them we could send them back and then book the engineer to come and fit them for us.

When I looked at the tumble dryer I have to say that I was not very confident about being able to carry out the repair on my own. There is no obvious way to remove the locking mechanism from the outside. At this point I was ready to say that we should get the engineer when I checked online to see if there was any advice. Wonderfully there is a web page where somebody talks and enquirer through the process of changing the locks for precisely the model of tumble dryer that we have. I am now much more confident that I can do it because somebody who knows what they’re talking about has explained it.

So where is all this going (other than a rambling sharing of some of our family issues)? There is no substitute for expert advice. Having somebody who knows what they’re talking about, who has experience, who understands the problems and pitfalls is incredibly helpful when you don’t know. And if they are able to communicate that to you in words that you can comprehend then that can give confidence and encouragement.

I hope that in some way that is what ministers/vicars/priests are able to do. It is certainly what I experienced when I read different books, including the commentaries on the Bible that helped me to understand better. It’s one of the reasons why churches such a good thing for Christians to be a part of: if we try and go it alone we may well struggle when we find we come across the things that we don’t understand or cannot cope with that if we are part of a church family there are others who can help us and be with us through it, offering their advice and experience.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Men don’t come with an instruction manual that here is what Clean Christian Jokes suggest might be helpful for women to know about us.

“Will you marry me?” Really means….
“Both my roommates have moved out, I can’t find the washer, and there is no more peanut butter.”

“Go ask your mother.” Really means….
“I am incapable of making a decision.”

“I do help around the house.” Really means….
“I once put a dirty towel in the laundry basket.”

“Hey, I’ve got my reasons for what I’m doing.” Really means….
“And I sure hope I think of some pretty soon.”

“I can’t find it.” Really means….
“It didn’t fall into my outstretched hands, so I’m completely clueless.”

“What did I do this time?” Really means….
“What did you catch me at?”

“She’s one of those rabid feminists.” Really means….
“She refused to make my coffee.”

“I heard you.” Really means….
“I haven’t the foggiest clue what you just said, and am hoping desperately that I can fake it well enough so that you don’t spend the next 3 days yelling at me.”

“You know I could never love anyone else.” Really means….
“I am used to the way you yell at me, and realize it could be worse.”

“You look terrific.” Really means….
“Oh, God, please don’t try on one more outfit. I’m starving.”

“I brought you a present.” Really means….
“It was free ice scraper night at the ball game.”

“I missed you.” Really means….
“I can’t find my sock drawer, the kids are hungry and we are out of toilet paper.”

“I’m not lost. I know exactly where we are.” Really means….
“No one will ever see us alive again.”

“We share the housework.” Really means….
“I make the messes, she cleans them up.”

“Of course I like it, honey, you look beautiful.” Really means….
“Oh, man, what have you done to yourself?”

“It sure snowed last night.” Really means…
“I suppose you’re going to nag me about shoveling the walk now.”

“I don’t need to read the instructions.” Really means….
“I am perfectly capable of screwing it up without printed help.”

“I’ll take you to a fancy restaurant.” Really means….
“This time we won’t use the drive-thru window.”

ouch

Compassion“God won’t let you suffer beyond what you can endure.” Has anyone ever said that to you? I have said it in sermons occasionally, but I am wondering about it. It’s not the most sensitive thing for someone to hear who is experiencing extremely difficult circumstances. To the person who feels that they are at the end of their tether and they don’t feel that anyone is holding the other end it can seem trite or even insulting. To the person in constant pain it is almost an accusation – do you think it’s too bad? Rubbish: you should be able to cope with this if you trust God enough!

The problem I have is that I want to believe it. I think I do believe it, based on my own experience. But while it may be true that we can look back and say, “Yes, it was true,” when we are up to our necks in ‘it’ then we cannot easily see things from that perspective. When you are screaming in pain the last thing you want to do is think about well-intended platitudes.

I am sure that God empathises with our pain, distress, anxiety or whatever we are going through. After all, we are reminded, God the Father experienced bereavement at Easter and the Son endured extreme pain and ultimately separation from the Father in death. Before Easter Sunday comes Good Friday.

I am sure too that God is with us. His Spirit knows the deep within us and interprets what we are unable to articulate as prayers in the throne room of heaven – prayers that are heard and cherished. Some of the most profound theology is incarnational: God with us, Jesus who will never leave us…

Please don’t think I am having a crisis of faith here. I am having a crisis of Christians. We too often emulate Job’s friends alongside those who are suffering – trying to offer rational explanations, looking for someone to blame, praying harder, claiming things in Jesus’ name – when I think that what we really need to be are believing friends who will sit, wait, endure alongside, travel with. Rather than looking for the answers or try to make sense of what is happening we need people who will hug us, cry with us, laugh with us, talk with us.

When we have come through we have the right to say that God was with us, that he kept us, that his grace was sufficient for us, that we did endure. Nobody else has the right to proclaim that on our behalf.

And we need to bear one more thing in mind, dear Christians. Death may have been defeated as an eternal consequence, but it is still a physical reality for each one of us eventually, even well-meaning Christians and those who pray for healing. Death can be a freedom from pain and suffering, an end to misery: in that sense you could even describe as one way in which we are ‘healed’, made whole, become fully human. Nobody wants a painful death, but if the message of Easter tells us anything it is that our faith assures us that the moment when we are translated from this life to the next need not be feared.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

being there

One of the immense privileges of being a pastor is that you are able to be a part of people’s lives at difficult moments. When I was training in the vicar factory I thought that this would be an aspect of the role that I would find really awkward and challenging. I wondered how I would cope. The idea of being present as people’s lives ebbed away or involved in conversations with people whose relationships are struggling felt so far out of my comfort zone that I even doubted if I was called to this role.

But, as I hope you can tell from my description of this as an “immense privilege”, this is an aspect of my ministry that blesses me far more than its blesses those with whom I am ministering. I have been trying to work out why this should be and, while I don’t think I have come to any firm conclusions, I do have one theory.

It seems to me that when the boundaries of our lives are challenged we are most open to an encounter with the divine. So when we are faced with death we realise not only our own mortality but also that there is Someone who is beyond death. When the security of our relationships is shaken we reach out for an unshakeable Relationship. And the role of the Minister in these moments is to help people make those connections. That experience enriches and deepens my faith in the all-compassionate God who is there with us in the dark and tragic times of our lives as well as the bright and joyous ones. Graciously and miraculously he takes the faltering words and awkward silences we offer to him and speaks through them to those most in need of his presence and reassurance.

It is in these moments too that I feel an almost tangible presence of God’s Spirit with me. He provides peace in the face of anguish. He exudes calm in calamitous circumstances. He not only gives the words to say, and the wisdom sometimes to be silent, he also provides me with confidence and strength that I can offer to those for whom they are lacking.

I’m sure that this is not the exclusive experience of Ministers. Any of us and all of us can experience that sense of unexpected peace as we come alongside others. We don’t need to worry about saying the wrong thing (usually saying nothing is worse than saying something) if first and foremost we offer ourselves – our time, our presence, our prayers, our thoughts – and simply say, “I’m here for you.” We find that in those circumstances God is saying exactly the same thing through us.

Be blessed, be a blessing.