mmm… cookies?

cookiesNo, this is not a tribute to Homer Simpson or the Cookie Monster. It’s actually a reflection on how, through cookies* and the like, websites get to know stuff about us. If you search for ‘silly string’ (as I have done recently, watch out!) you will find that you start getting offered adverts for silly string on other websites you visit because of the clever sneakiness going on behind the scenes that tracks what you are interested in and offers you more of the same or similar (I still have no idea why I get offered hair products, though!).

At the moment I am gathering some items for a couple of new magic routines I am working on so the adverts are becoming quite interesting. I get offered gifts to go in party bags, fancy dress costumes and practical jokes. (I will leave you guessing what the magical routines are!)

I wonder why the clever sneakiness going on behind the scenes thinks that because we have searched for something once we want some more of the same? I have bought all I need for the magic routines, that part of my internet life is at an end. I won’t be buying any more but the adverts that are based on what I searched for assume that I want to continue purchasing that sort of thing.

Of course I recognise it’s very difficult for websites to anticipate what we will search for next – the only thing they can go on is what we have done in the past and try to extrapolate from that to offer us what we might want next. It would probably freak me out if every time I went online to search for something new my browser offered me exactly what I wanted before I had even searched for it. I would wonder how they had got inside my mind!

You and I are much more than the product of our past. We are shaped and influenced by it now and in the future. We even have to pay for it (eg loans). But the mistakes and terrible events of the past do not have to have so much hold over us that they define who we are today. We can choose.

Just because you are walking down a particular path does not mean that you have to continue to follow that path.

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Changes of direction, turning around, fresh starts and freedom are available to us all. It can take courage, resolve and we may need help (either from friends or professionals), but it’s possible. I don’t write these things lightly and recognise the limitations of a blog that can’t hope to minister to all of you, but I have found these things to be true for myself as a follower of Jesus and share that experience with you. I hope you will find the same thing in a local Christian church.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*According to Wikipedia “Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items added in the shopping cart in an online store) or to record the user’s browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in, or recording which pages were visited in the past). They can also be used to remember arbitrary pieces of information that the user previously entered into form fields such as names, addresses, passwords, and credit card numbers.”

the lost ring

wedding ring

This is my wedding ring. Actually it’s the ring Sally gave me when we got engaged: I had given her an engagement ring and I too wanted an engagement ring in order to show everyone I was engaged to her. For our wedding she got it engraved with the date of the wedding so that it would become my wedding ring. 1-7-89.

No, cynical peeps, the date was not there in case I forgot it. It’s a date that is engraved in my mind – I counted down towards it for about 6 months in my diary! The date is purely there to show the change of use.

The observant among you will have noticed that I have a different, much chunkier, gold band on my wedding finger. The reason for that can be seen if you look closely at the ‘9’ in ’89’ inside the ring. Eventually the ring cracked and broke. I wore it out! So we got a second, chunkier wedding ring to replace it and the original was put in a safe place. I had planned that one day I would get it restored.

The problem is that as time passed I completely forgot where that safe place was. I thought it was in my bedside cabinet, but even though I have emptied it several times and looked inside every place and container inside the drawers (and behind the drawers) it wasn’t there. I looked in Sally’s bedside cabinet as she has some precious things in there – some of our children’s milk teeth that were returned to us by the Tooth Fairy (in case our children read this and are worried); letters and poems that I have written to her over the years and other things that have no intrinsic value but lots of sentimental value. I thought that probably my old wedding ring would have been in there with those things. But no, it wasn’t there either.

I had even resorted to asking Sally to look for it – she is the looker in our house – but she couldn’t find it. So we assumed that somehow it had been lost in one of the house moves or accidentally thrown out in one of our tidying sessions. I forgot all about it.

Until today.

I was rummaging in one of the sets of drawers in my study – looking for a bulldog clip – when I noticed a section in an organising tray in the bottom of the drawer that had been covered over by a piece of debris. When I lifted it up I was thrilled to see my old wedding ring!

Wooo Hooo!

It’s not because it is very valuable (although as Sally was a student when she bought it for me it was relatively expensive).

It’s not because it proves that I am married to Sally. I have almost 27 years of being together with her, two wonderful children and lots of people who know that we are married to show that.

It’s because it was given to me by her at that special moment when we were wed and when it had gone missing that link to that amazing day had vanished. The value was in the giver and what the gift represented. It meant so much to me.

Some people treat their faith a bit like that ring. It was really important at first. It meant something. Perhaps you were baptised. But over time it became a bit tarnished and perhaps even was a bit damaged by other people or circumstances and eventually, rather than getting it restored, it got put in a safe place and forgotten about.

And then, when you least expect it, perhaps when you have forgotten about it, you rediscover it. You find that it had been nearby all the time. God hadn’t gone anywhere, but you’d had been looking in the wrong place. He’s just been waiting for you.

I am going to get the ring restored now. It is going to be made as good as new.

How about you?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

dusty to dustier

We’re having some building work done at our house at the moment – converting the garage into a study. The builders are doing a good job and it looks like this might be the last bloggage written in my upstairs temporary study as we anticipate being able to move everything downstairs into the new study over the weekend. Today’s photo is of a wonderful moment when the front wall had been built but the window was not ready and in order to secure the room overnight the builders cut the garage door in half. Some people have suggested that it looks like I was opening my own takeaway (suggested names included Nuclear Waffles (I don’t!); In Cod We Trust; nick’s kEBAbs; The Piece of Cod Which Passes All Understanding; and Fission Chips) or the story in the Thomas the Tank Engine series when Henry refused to come out of a tunnel so they bricked it up…

Even though most of the work has taken place in a sealed room and dust sheets have been used it is noticeable that most of the house seems to be coated with a thin film of dust at the moment. I have swept it up from time to time but it keeps coming back. On their own each individual speck of dust would not be noticeable, but when it gathers with its friends you can see it and it makes everything look grubby, dull and neglected.

I think dust is a good analogy for the things in our life that we’d rather weren’t there – the things the Bible calls ‘sin’. I don’t think many of us have lots of big boulder-sized sins to confess. But the little things, which on their own wouldn’t bother us, slowly accumulate until spiritually we feel grubby, dull and neglected. Little things like the occasional ‘white lie’, putting someone down, an unkind thought, selfishness, a quick gossip… you know the sort of thing.

Regular sweeping helps, but if we leave it until each Sunday to do that we will find we are quite dusty by the end of each week. And if we leave it longer than that we will find that the dust will seriously affect our relationship with God.

I find that I need trigger moments to help me dust daily – when I wash or clean or dust physically I also have a spiritual clean out too, I try to think about whether I have accumulated any dust recently and seek to sort it out.

“I am sorry, please forgive me” are six powerful words.Keep a short account with God and with other people.

And of course it would be much better if we didn’t get dusty in the first place. That’s where God’s Spirit comes in. If we ask him to and are willing to respond to him, he helps us to think before we speak. He nudges us before we act. He changes the way that we think about people so we think about them more the way God thinks about them.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

confession is good for the soul

Among the presents I received for Christmas was this:

You might be wondering why someone would give a 48 year-old man a Beano Annual (although if you know me you probably won’t be at all surprised). It was from my sister.

And it was a gift in response to something I did many years ago, and which I confessed to via Simon Mayo’s Radio Show on BBC Radio 2 in November 2015. You can listen to it here. For those who don’t know this feature, people write to Simon Mayo (calling him Father Simon, or something like that) and tell of past misdemeanours, and ask for forgiveness from the team.

If you are not in a situation where you can listen to the MP3 file, then I will put the text of the confession below. (There are a few differences between the text I sent in and the one that was read out, but I assure you that no goldfish were actually harmed (or consumed!)). This is what I wrote (changing my sister’s name to Beth).

Dear Father Simon and the Confessional Collective

I am writing to unburden myself about an event that happened many years ago, when I was about 5 or 6,  but which may have been foundational to what I do today.

As a small child I loved comics. Not the American superhero-type comics, but proper ones like The Beano, The Dandy, Whizzer and Chips, the Beezer and so on. One of my Grandads contributed to this passion by providing us with a new comic every time we saw him. Much as I enjoyed all of the characters in the comics I was particularly drawn to the mischievous characters like Beryl the Peril, Minnie the Minx and of course Dennis the Menace and Gnasher. In my heart of hearts I was drawn to their cartoon capers and imagined myself one of them. I did ask if I could join the Dennis the Menace fan club but my parents, fearing the worst, refused to let me.

On the fateful day in question my comic-giving Grandad and Grandma had come to our house to stay while we were going away on holiday. They brought comics with them and I read mine while my parents packed the car, so menacing was in my mind. When the time to go arrived my sister (we’ll call her Beth) and I went into the back garden to say goodbye to our goldfish who lived in a pond that was usually covered by a layer of green weed and slime. Beth got to the pond first and bent down to see if she could see any of the goldfish in order to say her ‘au revoir’, and I followed along behind.

As I approached the pond I was confronted by the sight of my sister bent over in front of me, facing the pond, and the mischief-maker within took over.

“I’ll push you in!” I said, in full menace-mode.

“Don’t you dare!” shouted Beth, but it was too late.

For a few blissful moments I was starring in my own comic as I shoved her into the pond. The sense of joy and delight was almost palpable, made all the better as Beth emerged from the pond covered in slime and weed. But the elation was cut short by the blood-curdling scream that Beth gave – a shout that brought me back to reality with a bump: “Muuuuuum!”

At that moment I knew I was in trouble that was even deeper than the pond. There was nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide and even “You dared me” was no defence to my actions.

Mum came running in response to Beth’s scream and was confronted by a slime-covered screaming swamp-monster and her rather sheepish little brother, ready to face the music. Beth was taken into the house to be cleaned up and I was severely chastised in such a way that sitting in the car for the long journey on our holiday was going to be uncomfortable (different times). Beth was convinced that she had swallowed a fish along with the rather large gulp of stinky pond water so she had to go back and count them: a task made more difficult by the fact that the traumatised fish had swum to the bottom of the somewhat opaque pond in order to recover.

Father Simon, I am now a Regional Minister in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and a significant part of being a Baptist Minister is pushing people under water, so I wonder whether this event has been formative for me in some way. I don’t seek forgiveness from my parents or my sister as I have already paid the penalty for my menacing misdemeanour. I don’t even seek forgiveness for traumatising the goldfish as they will have forgotten about it within a matter of seconds. But I do seek forgiveness from my Grandparents who had come to our house for a quiet break which began in such a traumatic way. In particular from my Grandad who, it has to be said, had a highly developed sense of mischief himself and must have almost done himself a mischief trying not to laugh at what had happened when he saw the screaming slime-covered swamp monster and heard what I had done, for to laugh would have vindicated my actions.

I throw myself on your mercy

Yours slightly less mischievously

Nick (you can call me Tom if you want to change my name)

Interestingly this generated some social media chatter from Baptists who were listening, trying to work out which Regional Minister had done such a thing. None of them suspected me (I know, unbelievable!).

And delightfully my sister (who works in a hospital) told her colleagues about it and they all listened to it. For the rest of the week she was known as ‘Swamp Monster’. Hehehe, the Menacing continues.

So now you know why my sister gave me a Dennis the Menace Annual for Christmas. Sadly there was no application form for the Dennis the Menace Fan Club included in the annual – I have since found out that the club is now closed to new members so I can’t join now, even if I wanted to, but that’s probably a good thing.

But I think there is something significant in all of this. Not my story, or even the gift (I have enjoyed reading it). But the act of confessing to someone else, having someone else to whom you are accountable. Protestant Christians seem to eschew confession as a throw back to the Reformation and as a rejection of all things Roman Catholic, but in doing so I think we have also lost something significant.

Protestant theology says that it’s important when we have fallen short of God’s standards that we confess it to him, ask him for forgiveness because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and seek his Spirit’s help to make a fresh start. We can do that directly to him, we don’t need an intermediary. But we can also benefit from having a confessor, someone who can hold us accountable, help us, pray for us, encourage us, support us, understand us, and help us to move on. It may take a bit of courage to admit to someone else that you have failed. It involves taking a risk. It is important that you find someone who will keep your confidence and not share your secrets with others, and whose relationship with you will not be adversely affected by it. It may or may not be your partner. It may or may not be someone in your church. But confession is good for the soul.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

grrrrr computers

tempting
tempting

I had one of those grrrrr moments over the weekend when my hitherto reliable computer decided it was time to become unreliable. (Before I go any further I would like to make it clear they do not want any “should have bought a Mac” comments please!)

Windows users will know that in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen is the icon for the Start menu. This is the place from which you access your programs and the bits of software that lurk behind the interface and which contain various settings that allow you to customise your experience. Rather annoyingly my Start menu decided to stop. When I clicked on it I got a “critical error” message with a reassuring comment that Windows would try to resolve the problem when I signed in again.

So I signed in again. Same problem.

So I signed in again. Same problem.

So I signed in again. Same problem.

So I signed in again. Same problem.

So I signed in again. Same problem.

You get the picture. I checked various online forums and discovered that I was not unique in having this problem. Eventually I found a link on Microsoft’s support website that enabled me to have an online chat with one of their “Answer Tech” people. She was very polite, sympathised with my problems, and reassured me that she could sort them out.

And eventually she did. It involved creating a whole new me – or at least a new profile – and more or less starting again. The process of starting again took a very long time (and is still not complete). I have had to transfer all my files across. I’ve had to find a way of setting up my email accounts so that I did not lose the emails to which I need to reply (and those which I saved). I’ve had to try to remember passwords for websites and programs that I have forgotten.

grrrrr

But in the midst of the grrrrr have been a couple of moments when I have been able to stop and assess whether or not I needed to reinstall certain software. It’s the sort of software that keeps telling you how important it is and how necessary it is for you to synchronise your life on your computer with various mobile devices. And I’ve sometimes wondered whether it is as necessary and important as it thinks it is but never had the courage or time to turn it off and see what happens. But now, with the new me, I am able to run programs without the software and am finding that actually it s not as essential as it has been telling me.

And actually the timing is quite good because for the last month every time I have switched on the computer the apparently essential software has reminded me that my year’s support is about to expire and I need to pay them some money in order to keep it going. Now I realise I don’t need to. This will save me some money and also stop the annoying pop-up messages. Win win!

And it made me wonder how much of what I consider to be essential to my life really is that important. Last week and Sally and I swapped cars so she could go a long journey in more comfort and I found myself disliking her car because it was not as comfortable or fast or luxurious as mine and didn’t have all of the gadgets and gizmos that mine came with. But it’s a car. It goes. It stops. It’s more than most people have in this world. Cue another attitude adjustment to turn up the attitude of gratitude.

In the Bible many people found themselves challenged to address what is important and essential in life by their encounters with Jesus. When it boils down to it it’s not stuff that matters. The bottom line is that convenience is not essential. You can even live without all of the things that you consider to be priceless because of their sentimental value (even though that might hurt a bit). If you had to do a reinstall of your life there are lots of things you could do without.

What really matters is the quality of the relationships we have with other people and with God. Those are the irreplaceable essential vitally important things, aren’t they? They are what’s really priceless.

So how much do you value them? Are they the priority in your life? Does it show?

Be blessed, be a blessing

the little things

It’s all the little details that take time isn’t it? Moving house was not, on the grand scale of things, too traumatic an event. Strong men moved our belongings into a big lorry, drove the lorry to a new house, and then unloaded our belongings into the new house from the big lorry.

The removal firm we used, although not a picture of them moving our stuff!

Of course we still had to unload all of the boxes and find homes for everything (and remember where we put things). Opening the boxes was a little bit like playing hide and seek with our possessions as we didn’t know exactly which box contained what items. But even that was big picture activity.

Since then we keep uncovering little bits and pieces that we need to do/change/restart/start related to our new location. Who knew that there were so many different and disparate organisations that needed to be informed of a change of address? And who knew how many of them will charge us for the privilege of changing our details (harrumph, harrumph, harrumph)? Who knew how many old documents needed shredding and new ones need filing in their place? And on top of that we have had to find new window cleaners, remember a different day for refuse and recycling collections, find out where the local shops are (and work out what you can and can’t buy in them), and find a local church in which to settle.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I’m not saying we have a tough life. Not at all. We feel so blessed. All I am observing is that there are so many little things that need sorting out even after we’ve sorted out the big things. And I think it’s the same with my faith. To me the big picture is fairly clear: God loves me and wants to have a relationship with me, I have stuffed up and wrecked our relationship, God has sorted it out through Jesus. Now I know that theology is an awful lot more nuanced than that but if the best I can manage on Monday morning.

But the little things keep needing to be sorted out. I constantly need to keep a short account with God – asking for forgiveness and a fresh start on a daily basis. I need to remember to spend quality time with him on a daily basis. Reading and understanding my Bible isn’t always easy. Praying doesn’t always come naturally. Forgiving other people as I have been forgiven isn’t easy sometimes. Accepting God’s will isn’t always comfortable. Listening to God is not always easy when there are lots of other “noises” (literal and metaphorical) that drown him out. Trying to see things how Jesus sees them and respond how he would respond is tricky. And it’s not even 10 o’clock yet!

It would be easy to get despondent about all this but two things give me hope. One of them is God’s indomitable unlimited lavishly poured out grace. God is so gracious and patient with me. Even if I let him down for the hundredth time in a day his grace is more than sufficient for me to come back, ask for forgiveness and a fresh start and receive them from him. The other is that he has given us his Spirit to help us. On our own it would be impossible for us to live in a way that honours God we serve and seeks to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. It would be easier for me to lift myself off the ground and stay floating in midair (without the aid of any magical props!). But God’s spirit is constantly nudging, encouraging, inspiring, speaking, enhancing, cultivating fruit, giving gifts, surprising, blessing, and being just like Jesus in us and with us and through us.

Without both of these my Christian faith is simply a set of rules and guidelines and principles for living (and failing). But with them it is a vibrant, living relationship with God Almighty: by no means a relationship of equals but, as I have said, God’s grace is sufficient for me – and you. Even for the little things as well as the big ones.

Perhaps especially so.

Be blessed, be a blessing

I can see clearly now…

If you don’t wear glasses you may not fully empathise with this bloggage, but give it a go anyway (you could try spraying cleaning spray on a mirror and having a look at it before you clean it to get the similar effect).

Embed from Getty Images

Glasses-wearers among you will know that during the day glasses accumulate gunk, dust, smudges and other unwanted gubbins. It just happens. (It makes you wonder about how much gubbins our skin accumulates in a day). But the thing is that it happens gradually. Glasses-wearers will be unaware of the build-up (unless it’s an obvious glob of gloop in the middle of the lens or a big smear) until they take off the glasses and have a look at them. Then we realise just how much has accumulated and we clean them. We may ‘huff’ on them with our breath or use a specialist cleaning fluid along with either a designated cleaning cloth, a handkerchief (hopefully clean), the corner of a shirt or jumper, or any piece of rag we can find).

And when we put the glasses back on suddenly we realise how dirty the lenses had become. We can see clearly now the gunk has gone.

And I think there’s an element of that for all of us. In our daily living we accumulate grime – the little lie, the unkind thought, the angry word, the selfish act… and we don’t realise how grimy we are until we stop and take a look at ourselves. One of the reasons why it’s good to be in regular contact with God and consciously to spend time with him is that it is good to ask him to clean us up regularly rather than allowing these things to accumulate. Why? Well they separate us from him and they can tarnish and diminish our positive experience of life: guilt, shame, hurt and upset all detract and diminish us as people. They don’t come from God, they come from our failure to live in the way that he designed us to live.

The good news is that he is always ready to clean us up – in Jesus he’s done all that’s necessary, all we need to do is ask.

Be blessed, be a blessing