the new normal

Man in Bathrobe
This face-mask won’t protect you from Covid-19!

It’s weird/frustrating/ isn’t it, this Covid-19 lockdown situation? Life as we knew it has been put on hold and the canned music playing in the background of self-isolation, furlough and limited journeys outside our homes is becoming so familiar to us that we are almost unaware of it. The ‘new normal’ is becoming normal, at least temporarily. We are acutely aware of what we have lost during this time, and I am not wishing to ignore that or diminish how tough some people are finding this, but are we also recognising what we have gained? Here are a few things for which I am immensely grateful.

Our family is joining in the 8pm applause outside our house on a Thursday evening to express our collective national appreciation of the NHS workers and many others who are enabling us to survive this time. It’s evolving so that it’s not just hands clapping – there are pots and pans being hit by wooden spoons, car horns tooting and even music being played at high volume for everyone to join in with. When this is over, I feel that we must not lose that appreciation of those who, until now, have been unsung heroes.

In the UK we have all been inspired by Captain Tom Moore – a 99 year-old who walked 100 laps of his garden with his walking frame with the intention initially of raising £1,000 to support NHS workers. His determination and spirit captured our imagination and at the time of writing people have donated over £28million! It’s partly because of his self-effacing, unassuming attitude, partly because of his age (he wanted to do it before his 100th birthday) and partly again because we have realised how much we depend on and love the NHS. Let’s not forget that!

Community Spirit has blossomed to fill some of the emptiness in our streets. Many WhatsApp groups have begun in neighbourhoods, people are talking with one another (virtually or at least 2 metres apart) and saying hello in ways that they had not done before. We have got to know people from our street that we wouldn’t have recognised beforehand if we bumped into them, and we now have a weekly street ‘virtual pub quiz’, and Sally (my wife) arranged an Easter Egg hunt that was so well received that people asked us to do it again next year. Can we afford to lose this when the lockdown ends?

The country has moved online. Most days bring with them some new funny video that someone has created and shared online relating to the lockdown. It seems like half the country is joining in with online workouts and learning new cookery skills and other things from live videos. Many people have learnt how to communicate by video with friends and relatives who are distant from them. Churches have rapidly embraced the opportunity to live stream or record and share their services and other meetings which has enabled some people who could not physically attend to feel more connected. I have even started a YouTube channel with my magic rabbit called ‘StewTube Magic’ (you can see it here). (I had the funny experience this week of putting a video online and phoning one of my Ministers to see how he was only to find that he and his son had literally just started watching the StewTube Magic video!) How will this newly-acquired tech-savvy-ness change life after the lockdown? Can we incorporate it into our new new normal to ensure that we stay better connected than ever? And how can we ensure that those who can’t be part of the online experience remain connected too?

It feels that there is a growing appreciation of what’s important and what’s not. We realise that stuff matters less than people. Money matters less than relationships. For those who are forced to spend more time with those who live in the same house as them there may be increased tensions caused by living on top of one another, but can we also see the value of being with those we love in ways that we could never have imagined or engineered? When we emerge from the lockdown how can we make sure that we don’t lose this realisation and give in to the temptation to return to being consumers of stuff rather than creators of love?

The environmental impact of this freeze on so much polluting activity is incredible. I have seen pictures of cities that previously were blighted by smog now having clear skies, of rivers that were brown now being clear, of wildlife reclaiming our streets and it seems as if nature is flourishing in this time when human beings are shut in our homes. So dare we go back to the self-centred pollution-generating lifestyles of the past? Can we use this as a ‘reset’ moment that not only enables the planet to recover temporarily but enables us to hit the long-term environmental goals much quicker?

And in all of this, I want to ask: “Where can we take the gratitude?” We rightly applaud those whose work we now recognise as vital. We rightly enjoy connecting and communicating with people we had lost touch with or never known. We are grateful for a fresh appreciation of what matters most. We are grateful (and I suspect the planet is breathing a sigh of relief) that the environmental impact of this is so positive. But I suspect that without a belief in God you have limited places to take this attitude of gratitude. You see all of the things I have listed above are things that God, through the Bible, has been urging us to do since the words were written down. They are things that he has written on our hearts as important but which we have ignored or forgotten in the everyday busyness and business of what used to be normal. Perhaps in addition to the above you might also be grateful to him that these things are happening and that he is using this unprecedented time (yes, I finally used the ‘u’ word) to remind us of them – and perhaps see them as pointers towards him.

Be blessed, be a blessing

celebrating third place

Recently Sally (my best friend to whom I am married) and I went with a couple of friends on holiday to Center Parcs in UK. It was a great time away and we enjoyed a range of different activities including crossbow shooting, laser clay pigeon shooting, an escape room, meeting some owls as well as splashing in the pool, screaming down the rapids and enjoying being leisurely.

I was interested that at the end of some of the activities (the competitive ones) certificates were awarded for those who had been best (and we got one for escaping from the escape room too). I can understand that for some children that’s exciting but at first I felt slightly patronised when I was awarded my certificate for coming third in the laser clay pigeon shooting (Sally came first). It didn’t feel like much of an achievement. (Of course when I was top in the crossbow shooting I suddenly decided that the certificates were more significant!). However it still felt a bit like some school sports days where everyone gets a medal regardless of where they finished. And that felt a bit silly for people in their 50s!

But on reflection I realised that encouraging one another and building each other up is a really important thing to do. Perhaps we ought to be awarding certificates for: the timeliest provision of a cup of tea/coffee at work; the tidiest bedroom in the house; the tastiest meal of the week; the kindest act in public…

Of course, that’s silly isn’t it? But just for a moment think about the awards that you might receive. Think about the awards that you might give to someone else. And rather than make a certificate (you can if you want) why not take the time to go and tell that person that you appreciate what they have done? Why not give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done by yourself?

There are quite a few times in the New Testament where churches are urged to be places of encouragement and affirmation. Some are good at it, others need some more practice. But the problem I can see is that sometimes we (churches) have kept the encouraging and affirming for ourselves. I don’t think that we’re meant to limit our appreciation. I think an attitude of gratitude should be one of the distinctive things about followers of Jesus that others should be able to see in us and receive from us as a sign of how much God appreciates them too.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

making waves

PositureWaving is a funny thing if you think about it. Why do we choose to flap our hands around in order to signal something? And it can mean many different things.

A wave can mean ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. It can say, “I’m over here”. It can be a call for help. When the Queen does her wrist rotation I think it is saying, “One is grateful that you have come out to see one.” We have Mexican Waves at sporting events, which I think either means ‘We’re really bored’ or ‘We’re really enjoying ourselves’. And deaf people applaud by waving their hands.

Of course it’s really important to know what sort of wave is happening to you in order to respond appropriately. I was recently on a boat with a friend and as we passed other boats there were gentle waves that acknowledged that we too were on a boat. But as we were approaching our mooring we saw a couple of people clinging to an upturned sailing dinghy who were waving frantically at us to attract our attention and get some help because they were being taken out to sea on the tide. If we had simply waved back in acknowledgement it would not have been good (we tried to help for a while but then the lifeboat arrived so we left it to the professionals).

In just over a week’s time I am going to be speaking in a church for their Harvest Festival and I have decided to focus on waving. Why? One of the ways in which people in Biblical days celebrated harvest was by waving some of the produce that they had gathered. People would bring the items with them to a celebration and then at a given moment would all wave them in the air. I have come across different explanations for what they were doing (and how they waved them) but in short it seems to me that they were waving them in acknowledgement that God had once again provided for them, that he was faithful in the reliable rotation of the seasons he had programmed into our annual journey around the sun, and to express gratitude to him for all that they had received. Doing it on your own would not feel very impressive, but imagine being in a big crowd where everyone was waving a sheaf of corn, for example. It would be a spectacular reminder of just how many people were feeling blessed and grateful.

Few of us nowadays harvest our own crops but harvest festivals persist as reminders that we should be grateful to God for our planet and the way in which it provides nourishment for us. And we can be grateful too for those who do grow and harvest on our behalf, and even for those who transport them and who sell them to us. It’s a moment when our attitude of gratitude gets a boost and we are reminded to be grateful 24/7.

So what would you take to a Harvest festival to wave in order to show gratitude to God?

Be blessed, be a blessing

taking the time to thank

Thank youThis week I have been blessed by two people who have taken the time to thank me for something I said or wrote. It was unexpected and a real encouragement and blessing to be thanked – one electronically and the other by a card in the post.

I like to encourage an attitude of gratitude in myself and in others (as much as anything else I like the way it rhymes). When I am blessed by someone else in this way it not only boosts and encourages me, it also encourages me to do the same. So, I wonder, why don’t we do more of it when it is so positive?

Sometimes we may struggle to find something to thank someone for. My wife told me that in a group discussion among spouses at the Bible College where I trained they were considering what to say when your other half has ‘preached a stinker’. One suggestion was, “It was a good text!” I hope not to hear that too often! But it represents an attitude of gratitude – there is almost always something good for which we can be thankful in any circumstance.

Recently a lorry bumped the back of my car while we were in a slow moving queue of traffic on the M25. It has only caused minor damage to my bumper but it has caused major hassle with insurers as the lorry is from overseas. So, where’s the good for which I can be thankful?

Well, one is that nobody was injured. Another is that the driver spoke excellent English and knew which documents I would need to see. Another is that the traffic around us was moving so slowly that we were able to pull across onto the hard shoulder safely from the middle lane (and get back into the ‘flow’ of traffic after exchanging details). Another is that my car is still very much driveable. Another is that we were able to get moving again and get off the M25 before it was brought to a complete standstill.

Perhaps it’s a silly example, but I think it illustrates what an attitude of gratitude looks like. And I am trying to carry that through in all of my frustrating conversations with insurance people by making sure that I thank them for doing their job (even when it is frustrating that they can’t do what I want). So I am trying to put what I am calling the 5T principle into practice – taking the time to thank.

Another reason why we may not thank people is that it does take a bit of extra thought and effort. 5T includes ‘taking the time’ and that’s not always easy to do when we are busy people. But perhaps because it is not easy to do the effort is even more appreciated and worth it. Someone took the time to send me a message to thank me for something I wrote. Another person took the time to get a card, write it, address it, put a stamp on it and then post it! In addition to the words, the act itself speaks volumes and it has encouraged me to take the time to thank.

And as a follower of Jesus I also want to remember to put the 5T principle into practice in my relationship with God. I have so much to be grateful to him for that I won’t run out of ideas!

Because I am trying to put the 5T principle into practice – taking the time to thank – thank you for reading this bloggage.

Be blessed, be a blessing

ABC of gratitude


I have written about having an attitude of gratitude before, and I do try to cultivate that personally. I have come up with a new way of doing that which I thought I would share with you today. I am working my way through the Alphabet and giving myself a new letter each day. My challenge is to come up with things to be grateful for beginning with that letter.

It sounded easy but it’s not so simple. Today I am on B and have included ‘balance’ and ‘blogging’, for example. Of course some letters will present a greater challenge than others. I may need to befriend someone called Xavier otherwise I will be restricted to gratitude for xylophones and X-rays!

Something else I am going to try to do is look out for things and people beginning with that letter during the day and add to the thankfulness. And if there’s a person I will tell them why I am grateful for them.

Of course all of this gratitude is good, but it REALLY helps having Someone to whom I can express my gratitude!

Be blessed, be a blessing

replacement service

Image result for rail replacement busesHow frustrating do you find it if you have bought a train ticket and then find out that some or all of the journey is on a ‘rail replacement service’ – also known as a bus? Some operators have tried to introduce some levity to the situation by changing the electronic sign on the front of the bus from ‘Rail Replacement Service’ to ‘Choo choo I’m a train’.

The first time I saw a picture of that it made me smile. Perhaps it even calms down some of the more disgruntled passengers. But the levity does not change the reality of the situation: part or all of a paid-for rail journey has been replaced by a bus. Can you imagine how people would react if they turned up at an airport and found that a bus was waiting at the departure gate rather than their holiday flight to Spain?!

 

A while ago I found myself feeling stressed on a rail journey when part of it was replaced by buses. The railway station was crowded to overflowing with people who needed to get to their destination and the staff at the station were politely doing their best to direct them to different buses that were going to different places. A person in front of me verbally abused one of these staff members about how unacceptable it was. The railway employee looked shocked and somehow managed to utter an apology on behalf of the railway. As I passed the employee I tried to redress the balance by telling them how impressed I was with how well they were coping with the situation and how grateful I was that they were there to show us which buses to catch. The railway worker said thank you and I got on the bus. I heard others behind me trying to encourage her too.

On the onward journey I wondered whether the railway employee would remember the positive comments as much as she would the verbal assault. Human nature is such that we often remember critical comments more than we do positive ones. We can focus on negative things that are happening and forget to think about good things. Paul begins so many of his letters with thanks and praise to God for the people to whom he is writing. Even the heavy-duty correctional letters to the Corinthian churches start with thanks before he gets on to the business of trying to sort out the mess they have got themselves into. But how often do we skate past the ‘thanks’ sections almost as part of the prologue and get into the meat of the letters? Paul often writes how he always gives thanks for these people when he remembers them. He has an attitude of gratitude. And that must have included the difficult people!

In my first church I was asked to speak at the women’s group ‘Pleasant Monday Afternoon’ at their anniversary. The theme I was given was the line from the hymn “Count your blessings, name them one by one.” I wasn’t sure about it (it wasn’t a Bible verse and I was fresh out of Bible College and needed to show everyone that I could speak from the Bible). But I remember that as I pondered the theme I realised that it was an important one because of the human tendency to forget the blessings as we concentrate on the woes. Without wishing to diminish the significance or impact of some of the negative things we experience I would like to invite you to participate in an exercise: The next time you have time to spend with the Lord, why not count your blessings and name them one by one. Write them on a piece of paper. And use both sides if you need to. Offer thanks to the Lord in response to all that he has done for you. Keep that tucked in your Bible as a reminder.

Perhaps that way we can create a welcome gloom replacement service!

I leave you with two verses from the start of Psalm 9 that I think convey the same message:

I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.
I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing the praises of your name, O Most High.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

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.