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.
(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?
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.
I 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.
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
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.
We 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.
This morning on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show (yes, I am a Radio 2 listener now) they were attempting to give away some tickets to a concert tonight. People had texted in the day before and they called one person back to offer them the tickets on the basis that they would be prepared to cancel their arrangements today and go to the concert.
The first person who was called turned off their phone (perhaps by mistake) and the call failed. The next person they called did not pick up. Neither did the following one. Finally on the fourth attempt the person they were calling picked up and was given the tickets. The man was very happy, but how must those other people be feeling?
Did the first person hit the wrong button on their phone? Were the others driving or in another room and unable to get to answer the phone in time? Are they now feeling really disappointed at the missed opportunity? Do they regret not answering in time?
It is easy to let regrets over missed opportunities take root in our lives. They can easily take on a significance greater than the missed event. I have written about regret before in bloggages: “If only” are two of the saddest words in the English language when we put them together. They suggest sadness, disappointment, unfulfilled potential, a desire to be able to turn back time and do things differently.
But we experience time in a linear fashion and it is only going in one direction: forwards. Unless or until someone invents a working time machine (and if they do, I would like them to come back in time and tap me on the shoulder now to…. aaaaarggh. Who are you? The Doctor? Oh. Thank you for reading my bloggage in the future).
Subject to the words in parenthesis ever becoming more than silliness, what I said before still stands. We only experience time going forwards. We cannot go back. We can ask for forgiveness and / receive it. We can attempt to repair any damage we have caused. We can seek to pick up loose threads and start afresh. But we can’t undo what has been done.
Except that God is beyond time. He is not bound by our unidrectional experience. He did limit himself to that in Christ for 33 years, living within our time-space continuum, and he does exist within it now, yet he is also able to see the beginning and the end of time (as well as being the source of the beginning and end). The Cross of Christ is the moment in time when eternity breaks in. Jesus’ death is the means by which all humanity can be reconciled to God – those before him, those who witnessed it, and those who live after him. It could be seen as a fracture in the space-time continuum (Yes, alright Doctor, I know that it’s made up of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff). It’s the moment when past and future failings are dealt with and reconciliation with God is made possible. And Jesus’ resurrection is what seals the deal.
He can help turn ‘if only’ into the cathartic ‘I’m sorry’, or ‘please forgive me’, or ‘can we start again please’? He won’t turn back time but he will help to transform the effects of what has happened in the past.When we turn to him for forgiveness he wipes the slate clean from his perspective. He can also help us to release regrets linked to the past. He can help heal wounds, soothe the pain of memories, calm trouble thoughts. He is the God of fresh starts.
Be blessed, be a blessing
And apologies to any non-Doctor Who fans for the oblique references.
Ladies and Gentlemen, bloggists and twitterers, I have an important announcement.
[cue fanfare. You will have to do your own as I am too much of a cheapskate to have audio files added to this blog].
Today is another day.
I know. Profound isn’t it?
Actually, today is the 46th anniversary of the day I arrived kicking and screaming on this planet (forcing my father to abandon a round of golf in the process).But it’s also just another day. It follows February 17th 2013 and (assuming it happens) it precedes February 19th 2013.
Don’t get me wrong, I love birthdays. It is lovely when people send birthday greetings in card form, in person, on the phone, and now in virtual internet-friendly formats too. I am really grateful for them, it is great to be remembered, blessed and encouraged by people.
But if my mother had eaten a hot curry the day before, or if my dad had not abandoned his round of golf, if they had been in a different part of the planet I could have been born on a different day.
We humans have aligned ourselves closely with calendars. We associate events with certain dates on the calendar. Some are good and we want to rejoice, some are sad and we would rather not be reminded of them. It seems that almost every day has been adopted by some organisation or another as their special day.
We also have a number of clichés that we trot out about dates: today is the first day of the rest of your life; tomorrow is another day; take it one day at a time…
Given that God exists beyond time, how does he respond to our calendar-driven routines? If he was remote and disinterested he may view it with vague amusement. But because he is involved in our lives, because he is the God of history, because Jesus is God with us, he shares our joys and sorrows. He celebrates with those who celebrate and weeps with those who weep. And because he is God he can hold the two together – even when the two coincide on the same day. His Spirit within us knows our deepest needs and feelings and shares them.
So, whenever it is that you mark the moment of your arrival on this planet, happy birthday. Whatever today reminds you of, bless you.
Be blessed, be a blessing.
A fellow was very much in love with a beautiful girl. One day she told him that the next day was her birthday. He told her he would send her a bouquet of roses… one for each year of her life.
That evening he called the local florist and ordered twenty-one roses with instructions that they be delivered first thing the next morning.
As the florist was preparing the order, he decided that since the young man was such a good customer, he would put an extra dozen roses in the bouquet.
The fellow never did find out what made the young girl so angry with him.