smite*

We live in confusing times*. There is so much to celebrate at the moment, especially if you are English. Our national football team is doing rather better than expected in the World Cup leading to a growing national hysteria and expectation that “football’s coming home.” I think we’d better make sure we leave a key under the mat if it does come home because I suspect the country will be out celebrating.

In 2018 we are celebrating centenaries: 100 years since the first women were given the right to vote; 100 years since the end of World War 1; 100 years since the RAF was founded (I’ve just watched the amazing fly-past on TV); and for Baptist Christians it’s 100 years since the first woman Minister was called to a church (Edith Gates).

And right as I type the news has come out that the 12 Thai boys and their football coach have all been successfully rescued from the cave complex in which they were trapped (while poignantly remembering the diver who died in the process).

And at the same time there is so much to lament at the moment: Over 140 people have been killed in Japan by severe flooding and we’re entering Hurricane season in the Caribbean with the threat of damage and loss of life there; refugees and migrants are dying and being turned away and ignored; there seems to be a lot of political turmoil across the world and whatever you think of it the word ‘Brexit’ seems to be associated with growing uncertainty about the future for the UK.

Picture DramaWhat are we supposed to do in confusing times like this? One moment we are cheering and rejoicing and the next we are lamenting and crying. Can we switch from one to the other with integrity? It’s not easy. Yet to carry on with one when the other is happening seems to lack emotional integrity and empathy – laughing and cheering while some are weeping seems heartless.

Writing to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul encouraged them to “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15) Taken out of context that suggests to me that we are being told to react how those around us are reacting and take our cue from them. But the phrase is part of a wider section of the letter where Paul is teaching about how we should be in relationship with one another. It’s a passage that encourages humility, self-sacrifice, an honest appraisal and use of the gifts we have to bless others, and loving one another.

This is not an emotional, mushy love. Nor is it a lustful, erotic love. It’s a practical love that sees others how God sees them, values everyone for who they are and supporting and helping one another way beyond the superficial ways in which we relate to one another today. When we do that (allowing God’s Spirit to grow that sort of approach within us) we will find that we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn because we know them so well. It’s natural.

Of course that doesn’t work for national and international events really does it? In those circumstances I hope that I am sufficiently alert to God’s Spirit within me that God’s reaction resonates within me and I respond empathetically and prayerfully to what is happening. The closer we are to God and the more responsive we are to his Spirit in us, the more we will be able to do this. In circumstances where I am unsure, we are told that God’s Spirit interprets our inner groans and translates them into prayers for us.

So don’t be afraid to allow yourself to celebrate with others who are celebrating or to weep with those who are weeping, even if you don’t share their excitement or sorrow about the events to which they are responding. By doing so you are not being shallow. In fact I think you are showing God-style love to them and deepening your relationship with them.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*For those of you who didn’t get this, ‘smite’ is an anagram of ‘times’ – ie ‘confusing times’

the right time to change

person wearing leather wrist watch
Photo by Jonathan Miksanek on Pexels.com (not my wristwatch or wrist!)

Yesterday I had another of my regular visits to hospital to see various specialists and also have some more blood tests. I would have thought by now they’d know whether or not my blood had passed the test and was fully qualified as blood, but apparently not.

I’ve described my progress following my heart surgery as ‘two steps forwards and one step back’. That adds up to progress overall, but it’s frustrating when I am in a ‘step back’ phase, as I am now. The appointments yesterday were positive and hopeful but the cardiac rehab process is still on hold until at least next week, which means my return to ‘normal life’ (whether it ever was normal is debatable) is on hold too.

Anyway, that little diversion by way of an update distracted me from my reflection. In order to test my blood they have to take some of it away to a laboratory and this (inevitably) involves someone jabbing me with a needle. Yesterday my veins decided that they had had enough of being speared so for a while they refused to give up any blood. The doctor who was impaling me tried five times before he finally managed to hit a gusher.

The five attempts were not without cost. I suspect that my hand is going to resemble a rainbow soon with the bruising that is ominously threatening behind a mask of off-yellow discolouration. And my wrist is really sore as it took the brunt of the assault. That would not be a problem normally, but it’s my left wrist.

I am a conventional watch-wearer, normally locating it on my left wrist. But because of the aftermath of needlegate yesterday it’s too uncomfortable to wear my watch on my left wrist at the moment, so it’s located on my right wrist.

“Big deal,” you might (rightly) think. But I am finding that this minor adjustment feels really strange. The watch feels heavy on my right wrist. It feels strange, unusual, even uncomfortable on my right wrist and I am very conscious of it whereas on my left I rarely think about my watch unless I am consulting it to discover the time.

And it struck me afresh how difficult most of us humans find change. There are some people who embrace change and seems to struggle with regularity and consistency, but most of us (I reckon) find change uncomfortable, unusual and strange. We are acutely aware of what has changed and how different it looks and feels and we don’t like it. So we become ‘change-averse’. We can even fear change because it might not be something we like, and moreover we are usually not fully in control because changes can bring unexpected consequences.

If you want an example of a change-averse organisation then look at most churches. Even those with brand-new premises will be doing things in the same way they have done them for decades (or longer). That’s not a criticism, maintaining links with the past is important and for some people to reconnect with church they need to find something familiar. But the change-averseness that I am thinking of is the knee-jerk reaction against any proposals or actions that threaten ‘the way we’ve always done things’.

Leaderships need to take some responsibility for this: introducing possible change is an art form and should be done with grace, patience and discernment. Grace – recognising that for some people this will be traumatic – patience – realising that the majority of the church has not been on the same journey as the leadership and it will take some time for them to catch up – and discernment – receiving and weighing responses that are given and sifting them to find out whether God has hidden any pearls of wisdom in the field of unhappiness. Possible change that is well-introduced, well-led and adaptably implemented can bless everyone and bring them together. The opposite is also true.

And leaderships must be open to the possibility that they have heard God wrongly and that the proposed change is not what he wants. Humility is still a virtue isn’t it?

But it’s not all down to the leadership. The rest of us have to recognise that the way things are done in church can become a sort of spiritual security-blanket. We are comfortable with the way things are (why do you think we are part of that church?) and locate our spiritual well-being as an aspect of our comfortableness. If something threatens that then we don’t like it.

When I am tempted to hide my head under my spiritual security-blanket I need to remind myself of a few things:

  • My spiritual security is in my relationship with Jesus not in the church I attend.
  • Jesus embraced, introduced and inspired change – re-read a Gospel and see how much he changed and how much he spoke about change.
  • God, while unchanging, has put change into the rhythm of life (the seasons) and through his prophets says things like, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
  • Even if I am uncomfortable with change I should look to see where God is in all of this, not seek to impose my own preferences (thinly disguised as ‘thus saith the Lord’) on others.

So for the time being (pun intended) I shall continue to wear my watch on my right hand and allow it to remind me not only of the time but also that change, while uncomfortable, can also be beneficial.

dating

Rather belatedly, “Happy New Year!”

Why is it that we celebrated new years? After all it’s just another 360 degree rotation of the planet on our orbit of the sun, just like any other. The fact that we have decided to number and name dates does not make them any more special than any other. Even though fireworks were let off and ‘Auld lang syne’ was sung nothing marked 1st January 2017 as any different to 31st December 2016.diary

(In fact 31st December 2016 was more remarkable because it had an extra second in it to take account of the fact that the earth is almost imperceptibly slowing down.)

And yet we mark special dates – new years, birthdays, anniversaries, and so on. I believe it is part of what makes us human. If you think about it no other created being on this planet has an awareness of dates. Other creatures may be aware of time (the dawn chorus is an example) but they do not have a sense of dates, and they certainly don’t attach any significance to any particular dates. So why do we do it?

I think it is part of our self-awareness and our consciousness. Marking special dates is a way of establishing our relationship with other people, with time and even with ourselves – which is perhaps why we like being with those we love on significant dates, or at least why we like to receive greetings from them by sending messages on cardboard or social media.

I think it’s also an indication that we recognise (albeit subconsciously) that we are mortal. We are on this planet for a limited amount of time and marking special dates is one way in which we remind ourselves of that. And perhaps, when we pause and consider our mortality, we also pause and consider whether immortality is possible – is there more to life than this?

Maybe 2017 is a year to explore that?

(again?)

(further?)

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

time to think

sabbatical clock 001Time is rather interesting isn’t it?

We often complain that we don’t have enough of it, yet we can’t increase it and it we can run out of it. Apparently it is airborne when we are amused. We mark it and if we can stitch in it we can save nine stitches. It will tell. It has a nick. It can be drugged (wasted). We can lose track of it. It can be taken. And we can give it to someone else.

We live in a split second called the ‘present’ (and there’s no time like the present) yet we spend lots of the present remembering the past and planning the future.

We measure time with clocks and calendars. We like celebrating recurring appointments, especially annual ones (birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Wedding Anniversaries…) – they are often occasions for special times with family and friends.

In the book of Ecclesiastes (chapter 3) there is the famous passage about there being a ‘time for everything’. How will you use the time you have today? Will it make a positive difference to others? Will it bless you? Will you take the time to thank the One who created time for the time he has given you?

If yesterday is history
And tomorrow’s a mystery
Today is His story
That He blends with my story

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

over-run

Stew the Magic Rabbit did not participate so for once I can't blame him!
Stew the Magic Rabbit did not participate so for once I can’t blame him!

Last night I took part in a competition. It was the Mid Essex Magical Society* Stage Magic Competition. I have never competed magically before and was not sure what to expect. It’s not about seeing who can find the most cards a spectator has thought of (I could name 52) or how many ladies you can saw in half (one). Each competitor had 10 minutes to perform a routine that was judged by a panel of three non-magicians.

I was happy with my performance (I didn’t win but was pleased with my placing) but let myself down by over-running. A warning horn honked after 8 minutes and I was in the middle of my final trick – sawing a lady in half. When the bell went at 10 minutes I should have been finished but if I had stopped then the lady would have been left with a jigsaw with a 10 inch blade in her abdomen so I thought it was better to finish.

There are people in my church who would rather like a timing system like that for my sermons. But it is not easy. I have worked with a traffic light system once when I was speaking at a conference. I was taking the Bible Studies and had carefully timed what I was going to say so that it was within the allotted time, bearing in mind that I had an interpreter alongside me which would also take time. On the first day I was pleased that I finished before the green light turned amber.

I knew that the Bible Studies on the next two days would be the same length as I had the same number of sheets of paper from which I was speaking, so was rather perturbed when, as I was speaking on the second day, the amber light came on before I had finished. I kept going and just managed to finish before it went red but it did fluster me somewhat. After the session was over I spoke with the Production team and told them that I was confused about how I could have been that much longer without having said any more. The Producer then admitted to me that because I was so much under on the first day they shortened the time they had allowed me to that amount for the next day, but had neglected to tell me. I was actually well within time! The Production Team are good friends of mine and I forgave them, but it would have been nice to have been told!

Timing is such a tricky thing, yet somehow in my experience God gets it right every time (pun intended). He unexpectedly brings me together with people ‘at the right time’. People send messages of encouragement ‘at the right time’. Things he inspires me to say in sermons speak to people ‘at the right time’. And so on.

And, since the Christmas shops are open and the ads are all over the TV, it’s worth noting that Jesus was born ‘at the right time’. He was born in an era after the Greeks had conquered much of the Mediterranean region and beyond and established a common language. He was born in an era when the Roman Empire provided a fairly stable political landscape and had opened up secure trade and transport links across the whole area. He was born in an era when his people had a heightened sense of expectation that God was about to do something amazing. And isn’t it amazing that he was born just as BC was giving way to AD?!!

These, and many other factors, meant that people were ready for his message of reconciliation with God, freedom, peace and love. After his death and resurrection his friends were relatively easily able to take the good news about him across the whole region and talk to almost anyone about it in a language they understood. And when the records of his life, death and resurrection were written in Ancient Greek (not King James English) they could be understood by anyone who read them or to whom they were read.

It’s not always easy to see ‘the right time’. We often have other ideas about what that time should be (usually ‘now’) when we are waiting for God to respond to our prayers. But with faith and patience (both gifts God’s Spirit gives us) we can learn to wait (im)patiently for God’s perfect timing. And wonderfully he often reveals to us afterwards why the time was right.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A rich man offered to pay for a new church building for his local Baptist Church, on condition that they allowed him to design the interior. He promised it would be appropriate and sensitively designed and unsurprisingly they agreed. The day came for the opening and the Minister arrived early – desperate to see what it looked like.

When he went in it was tastefully decorated and instantly he knew it was a place in which it would be easy to worship God and sense his presence. The only problem was that there was just one pew at the back. Given that the rich man had put so much money and effort into the church building and how tastefully designed it was the Minister didn’t say anything. Nor did any of the congregation. They dutifully filled up the back pew (don’t they always) and once it was full there was a click and a whirr and it glided to the front and a second pew appeared at the back it its place.

The Minister was thrilled. Now the congregation would always be at the front and there wouldn’t be six empty rows in front of him. He was so inspired that when he stood up to preach he got rather carried away.

After 15 minutes he noticed a yellow light came on on the pulpit. He carried on.

After 18 minutes the yellow light started flashing. He carried on.

After 20 minutes the yellow light turned red. He carried on.

Then there was a click and a whirr and the pulpit slowly sank into the ground.

*If you are in Essex and are planning a fundraising event have a word with MEMS – we can provide a magical evening that will raise significant funds for your charity. Have a look at their website and follow the link there to send an email to find out more.

time travel

Time FliesWe human beings are obsessed with time. Our lives are shaped by the rudimentary 24 hour clock which God built into the solar system: the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. With the advent of timepieces (sundials giving way to clocks and watches) we have been able to be more precise about timing (admittedly sundials are less useful in cloudy / rainy countries and at night).

So phrases like ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ have become everyday expressions, reflecting the reality that when we are enjoying ourselves (or just busy) we are less conscious of the passage of time. We know too that when we are bored time seems to stand still. We know that ‘time is money’ and that a ‘stitch in time saves nine’…

Time travel has been an idea with which fiction writers and film makers have played, and it fascinates us because our experience of time is exclusively unidirectionally linear. It goes in one direction. The ‘what if’ of time travel is exciting because it breaks one of the most fundamental rules of our existence.

If you could travel in time what would you want to see? Where would you want to go? One of the apparently fundamental rules of time travel (especially if you go backwards) is that you don’t change anything. If you change something you may change an event that significantly alters our present reality – so in ‘Back to the Future’ Marty McFly inadvertently stops his mother meeting his father and falling in love, and so his own existence is threatened.

If you could go back in time and change something, what would you change? What would you do differently? There is no guarantee that the change you make or the different action would result in a better outcome than the one you have experienced. Wishful thinking, regrets, ‘if only’, and similar thoughts often reflect that things have not turned out as well as we had hoped: we rarely think that we would like to be able to go back and change something that worked out well!

We can’t turn back time. This side of death we are stuck in our unidirectionally linear existence. But God can redeem our failure. He doesn’t change what happened, but he can transform how we feel about the past and the present as well as the future. Grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace are all gifts that he longs to give us. It’s not always easy. I don’t pretend that these things instantly change our reality. They are gifts that sometimes we have to receive over time and with much prayer. Sometimes we need other people to help us to receive them. But they are possible.

When Peter realised he had denied knowing Jesus in the courtyard outside his trial he ‘went out and wept bitterly’. I love the way Jesus restored him (John 21 if you want to have a look). He did not change the past but he offered forgiveness, restoration, a hope and a future.

Because Jesus is risen from the dead the Christian faith is an optimistic faith. You cannot change the past, but he can change the way that the past affects your present and your future. He is in the business of giving fresh starts. There is no mess that God cannot sort out if we allow him to. There is no sin he cannot forgive if we ask him. There is nothing that can separate us from his love.

Be blessed, be a blessing.