crouching God, hidden pain

This is a slightly edited version of my ‘thought for the week’ yesterday – sent to the Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association…

11/9/2018 is a landmark day (or 9/11/2018 if you are American). (Cue trumpet fanfare, ticker-tape parade and 21 gun salute… or maybe not). That day was the last day of my cardiac rehabilitation process. While I am still not 100% back to where I was before the surgery and still have one or two further appointments, I reckon I am about 95% and today is a significant milestone along the way that demonstrates the progress that has been made since my surgery back in February. I am now back at work full time.

Immense thanks go to my amazing wife, Sally, who has been a wonderful support and encourager throughout the time. Immense thanks go to the surgical, medical and rehab teams at the Essex Cardio-Thoracic Centre in Basildon who have looked after me incredibly. And immense thanks go to you and your churches for the many prayers that have been offered on my behalf – I have been acutely conscious of them and am sure that part of my progress is attributable to them. But most of all immense thanks go to my Lord who has been with me from start to finish along the difficult journey, and of course continues to do so. And I have discovered a new way in which he is with us.

SilhouetteYou may recall that in my recent Thoughts for the Week (not published here) I have been reflecting on Psalm 40. In verse 1 David wrote: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” In my first reflection on this psalm I noted how it must have felt to David to have God give him his attention. But since then I have done some more research on the Psalm and have discovered that our English translation is somewhat inadequate, albeit literally correct. The sense in the original Hebrew language is not of God turning to face David as he was in the slimy pit so much as ‘he crouched down to me and listened to me crying’. The image is of a loving parent who sees their child in tears and gets down on the floor to be with them in their sorrow so that they know that they are not alone. There’s no suggestion of wiping away tears or words of comfort, or attempting to explain what’s going on, just a God who crouches down with us and listens to our crying. That’s an astonishing thing for David to write about God when the gods of other nations were warlike and needing to be invoked or remote and needing to be appeased. I love it, and I have experienced it.

9/11 is the anniversary of the day when terrorists hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and another crashed as the passengers sought to prevent greater tragedy. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

There are many in today’s world who are victims of natural disasters, human violence and tragic circumstances. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

I am conscious that some of you and some of your church are going through deep, dark valleys at the moment. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

May we all experience and bring his reassuring presence in our life and ministry.

not much has happened

Dear Bloggists, sorry that it has been a while since my last bloggage. Not much has happened in the intervening time…

We have been on holiday to Sweden, meeting up with lots of Sally’s friends (and me making new friends). So I have seen lots of lakes, lots of words that in Swedish are normal but in English are funny (such as the delicious chocolate sweet in this photo).

I have seen castles and visited the Royal Palace at Drottningholm (in my mind a bit like Windsor Palace for the Queen in the UK as it’s a bit out of Stockholm). I have walked in a national park and heard some interesting noises that may or may not have been an elk or a wild boar.

I have discovered a new special concept: fika. This is stopping for tea / coffee and a cake, and can be at any time. Indeed as I write this bloggage I am also enjoying fika with a cup of coffee and the last of the Swedish cinnamon buns we brought back.

I have performed some magic for some of our Swedish friends, and also for an 8 year-old daughter of the friend of one of our Swedish friends on her birthday. It’s quite a challenge performing illusions when you don’t share a language, but it seemed to go well. I think an open mouth and wide eyes means the same thing for audiences in most languages!

And I have performed magic with a message at Heart for Harlow’s town centre service (not long after two women performed songs from Disney’s Frozen, complete with costumes.

I have had the date confirmed for my interview to join the Magic Circle. If I get through the interview I will then have an examination (audition) to perform later on.

We have been welcomed into Membership of our local church, South Woodham Evangelical Church.

Oh yes, and my friend Richard Jones only went and won Britain’s Got Talent! Well done Richard! You can see the two of us performing together last year here at the end of a show when we hired out a local village hall. I guess his days of performing in village halls may be over!

So not much has happened.

It is easy to get caught up and carried away with events, especially when they are either really positive or really negative, and forget that God wants us to involve him in these things too. When it’s good we sometimes forget to be grateful to him. When it’s bad we sometimes forget to call out to him (unless it’s to blame him).

I have written before about having an attitude of gratitude, and I am so grateful for all of the above experiences.

I am grateful that when things are not so good I know that I do not have to face those things alone. I know that He is with me when I walk through the darkest valley and I am grateful that nothing can separate me from his love.

I guess I am even grateful for the ability to be grateful. And I am also grateful that I have someone to be grateful to. If you don’t have a relationship with God, who are you able to be grateful to?

Today why not try listing things for which you are grateful, and be grateful to the One who gave you the ability to be grateful?

Be blessed, be a blessing

23

Today is Christmas Eve Eve: the night before the night before Christmas.

Husbands who are more organised than most will use today to buy their wives a Christmas present, rather than relying on the last minute rush tomorrow.

Children are looking forward to Christmas, but can’t ramp up the excitement to Christmas Eve levels because it’s very difficult to sustain it for too long.

Television schedulers want to put programmes and films on that are Christmassy, but they will save the best until Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

It’s not a particularly special day, is it? It’s something of an anticlimax before the main event (if that is possible).

I wonder if you feel like 23rd December. Expectations, hopes and dreams for 2015 have not been realised yet. You’ve been waiting for life to improve, and so far things have not got better. You are anticipating that the good times are just around the corner, but the corner doesn’t seem to get any closer. It’s always Christmas Eve Eve.

Or maybe that’s not you, but I am sure you know people who feel that way.

I can’t promise you that I know when (or even if) things will improve. But the experience of Christians through two millennia is that Jesus is with us as much in disappointment, unfulfilled ambitions and dark times as he is in celebrations, achievements and the brightest moments. Perhaps (if possible) moreso.

He promised his friends and followers (and we can be both) that he would give them his Spirit as a ‘paraclete’ (that’s the English version of a Greek word). There are many nuances to that word – it is someone on whom you lean for strength and support as you limp along; it is someone who offers you wise words and guidance; it is someone who comforts and uplifts; it is someone who speaks up for you (and advocate); it is an encourager.

If you want to see what that looks like, he is as Jesus was with the poor, downtrodden, oppressed, ignored, forgotten, unhappy, struggling people of his day. And because he is with all believers in the same way, he can also inspire people to do those things and be those things too.

You can see it in action in this YouTube clip of Derek Redmond at the Barcelona Olympics. The other person is his Dad.

For whom can you be a paraclete this Christmas Eve Eve?

Be blessed, be a blessing

every cloud has a watery lining

Today I was supposed to be going to a meeting. But the situation changed unexpectedly this morning and I have been unable to go to the meeting. I am frustrated and disappointed about that as it sounds like it would have been a really good occasion. But the change in circumstances as a result of this morning’s unexpected event means that now I have a little more time to catch up on admin and do some preparation that I was struggling to find space for. It’s not so much that every cloud has a silver lining so much as making the most of a situation.

dark-cloud-1539729“Every cloud has a silver lining” is a bizarre idiomatic proverb. It’s certainly not literally true. On the occasions when I have been in an aeroplane and it is flowing through a cloud it just goes grey and watery, not shiny and silvery. You can imagine that if it was literally silver inside by now we would be mining clouds! Who was it who first coined the phrase? (You can find some references to it here).

The problem is that even if you take the proverb in its metaphorical sense it’s still not true. Things don’t always turn out all right. Sometimes good does not come out of bad. Sometimes the bumper sticker is right (even if it’s not very eloquent): s#*t happens.

When you read some of the Psalms in the Bible the psalmist is going through dark times and there is no light at the end of the tunnel (not even the light of an oncoming train). And Jesus never promised anybody an easy ride for following him. In fact he suggested exactly the opposite was true: if you follow him you can expect persecution, opposition and s#*t happening.

So, you might be wondering, what’s the point? What do we gain from following Jesus, trying to live a life that pleases God and ending up getting persecuted?

The first thing (and you often find this in the Psalms) is a recognition that God is with us even in the darkest Valley. Everybody in this world experiences dark times but an awareness that God is with you, whilst it might not make things brighter, is a reassurance. Jesus gives us his Spirit who is with us whatever we go through and who can interpret the deepest groans of our being that we are unable to articulate and turn them into prayer.

Furthermore the Bible teaches us that stuff is not the most important thing in this life. Stuff breaks, rots, corrodes, becomes obsolete and loses value. Even money is finite and elusive. We leave this world as we came into it (I don’t necessarily mean naked and crying): empty-handed. But there is more to life than stuff and money and even more to life than living. I do believe in life before death but I also believe in life after death. That faith, hope, and expectation means that whilst I might struggle to find a silver lining inside a cloud I know that beyond the clouds is the brightest sunlight.

Be blessed, be a blessing

the guardian angel of credit cards

little angelAfter some unexpected (and probably computer-error-generated) activity on my credit card I decided that it was safest to have the old card replaced. That all happened smoothly, but it also included getting a new PIN. Now I don’t know about you but I have so many 4 digit numbers bouncing around in my head that I didn’t want another one, but it was a necessary part of making sure that my account was secure.

The problem is that I can’t remember the new PIN. To misquote Eric Morecambe, I can remember all the right numbers, but not necessarily in the right order. I can check this, and I have done, but somehow the order remains elusive.

I wanted to use my credit card today and confidently put it into the machine at the till, and hesitantly put in the PIN I remembered. It was wrong. I decided that, rather than risk having the card disabled and having to get a new one again, I would use a debit card that I was confident about. All was well.

Then, as I was driving home, I had a call from an unknown number on my hands free phone. It was a very nice lady from my credit card company checking to see whether I had been trying (unsuccessfully) to use my card. I found it very reassuring that their system was monitoring me and my activity and had decided that the unusual activity was worth checking out in person. It’s nice to know that my credit card has a guardian angel.

I think lots of people like the idea of having a guardian angel – some holy being that is watching out for us: making sure we don’t trip up and fall flat on our face (literally or metaphorically). I have heard people talk about how their guardian angel must have been with them when they had a narrow escape from a dangerous situation.

Now I am not really convinced about guardian angels. This is why: if I have a guardian angel, then he/she/it is not doing a very good job. I do trip up and fall flat on my face (literally and metaphorically). I do get ill. Things do go wrong. Sometimes I don’t escape from a dangerous situation (narrowly or otherwise).

And I struggle to find evidence for one in the Bible. Indeed Jesus insisted on several occasions that if we follow him we can expect all sorts of hardship, which suggests that if they exist guardian angels become redundant when you become a Christian.

We all know that life can be tough. We all know that relationships can be difficult. We all know that sometimes we get ill. Life is not a continuous procession of joy, happiness and victory. (Before you get too depressed let me say that it’s not all misery and doom too!) Jesus never promised that it would be different. When he spoke about bringing people ‘life in all its fullness’ I don’t think he was saying that it would be a life of fluffy bunnies and cushions wherever we land. I think he was saying that it will be a life like everyone else’s with a balance of joys and sorrows (for better and for worse) but with the added dimension of experiencing God’s presence and perspective on things.

There’s a slightly fatalistic Hebrew proverb (not in the Bible) – “This too shall pass.” ‘Life in all its fullness’ has an element of ‘there’s a better future’ but it has much more to do with experiencing and living life as God intended it to be lived – with him, in him, through him. That’s what the Holy Spirit does for us and in us and with us and through us.

I suspect that instead of a guardian angel around us, what people are experiencing is a touch, a free sample, an inkling, an awareness that God is for us and that his Spirit is at work in us even before we are aware of him.

Be blessed, be a blessing

fancy seeing you here

Photo by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600
Photo by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600

Yesterday I was at church for our lunch club and absent-mindedly left my briefcase at the church when I drove home. I almost got home when I realised what I had done. So I turned around and headed back to the church where those who were clearing up had found it and were about to put it in a safe place for me. Very gratefully I gathered up the bag and headed back out of the church, when my mobile phone chirped at me to tell me that I had a message, It also chirped at me to say that someone had sent me a Facebook Message.

I walked across the courtyard at the front of the church and as I did I saw one of our congregation. As I greeted her she told me that she had just sent me a text message asking me to contact her. Even before I had read the message I had been able to talk with her.

Just as I finished talking with that lady I noticed a couple nearby whom I am marrying in a couple of weeks. They were able to tell me a couple more details about the service.

I left them and headed towards our church car park. I had pulled my phone out of my pocket and noticed who had sent me the Facebook Message. As I turned a corner I almost literally bumped into that person. As we talked we realised that it would be good for him to talk with someone else. A minute later that person turned up and joined in the conversation!

I was beginning to wonder whether I should buy a lottery ticket (I didn’t). I also wondered whether I have got it wrong all these years and rather than me go to where people are I should just wait around the church and the car park and wait for them to come to me.

It was funny.

It got funnier as each person turned up on cue.

They were lighter moments in the day.

I am not claiming any supernatural intervention in what happened yesterday. I know that when I pray ‘coincidences’ happen (I might call them ‘answers’), but I hadn’t really been praying about any of those things so I can’t say that they were answers to prayer. I don’t often pray for car parking spaces (unless I am running late and it’s important that I am somewhere) but sometimes they turn up in front of me and I am grateful.And perhaps we need to be grateful and acknowledge those moments as blessings. When they happen, to whom are you grateful?

Life throws enough bleak and dark moments at us that we need lighter moments (in both sense of the word) to help us through.

We also need to recognise that God is as much with us in the dark as in the light (but it’s sometimes harder to see him in the dark) so remembering our lighter experiences helps to reassure us that he’s there.

Be blessed, be a blessing

storming

Phone calls can be disconnected when the lines are cut
Phone calls can be disconnected when the lines are cut

I had a surprising phone call last week. It was from the hospital that has been helping me with my brain (and it needs a LOT of help). The battery pack that is supplying electricity to keep my migraines at bay is causing me some discomfort (I won’t go into details here in case you’re squeamish) and needs to be ‘re-sited’ (again, details omitted for the sake of the squeamish). The call was to say that they have a space for me to come in and have the operation.

The call was surprising for several reasons. First of all I was not expecting it. Secondly I was not expecting to be given relatively little notice in advance of going in (next Sunday afternoon!). Thirdly I was not expecting to be prepared to be in for up to 5 nights for what I was told is a minor procedure. Fourthly I was not expecting the Spanish Inquisition (cue Monty Python sketch)…

I think the thing that floored me most was how much potential disruption this causes when it happens at short notice. I was due to be preaching on the Sunday evening (I am very grateful to one of our members for standing in at short notice). I have several important meetings that week for which I will have to give my apologies. I have to prepare this week for the service on Remembrance Sunday, which throws out some of my planning for this week.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful that it is going to happen, and to all those at the church who have accommodated this short notice call up. But it would have been a lot easier with more notice.

And there’s the thing. I think that we are not so much floored by unexpected things as those unexpected things that arrive with little notice. Today the country is recovering from ‘The Great Storm’ that swept across us. We have had a few days’ warning of it and any precautions that could be taken were taken, as well as planning for coping with the aftermath. The famous non-existent Hurricane* in 1987 that swept across the country without warning was of a similar magnitude but seems to have had a greater impact because we weren’t ready for it.

I hope I am neither naive or insensitive to people who experience tragedies, especially the unexpected kind. But I have found that sometimes we are like Jesus’ disciples in the boat on the lake that was being swamped by an unexpected squall. They were panicking while Jesus slept in the stern of the boat, apparently unconcerned. They had not realised who he really was (which is why they were astonished when he calmed the storm) and were overwhelmed by their circumstances.

For those who are followers of Jesus we are not immune from being overwhelmed by circumstances, especially if it seems that Jesus is asleep in the boat while we are being buffeted by the storm. But I have found that it helps me to get perspective if I pause and reflect on who he is. Have a read of one of the gospels if you have time. If not try John 1 or Colossians 1:15-23. When we recognise whose in the boat with us, even if he seems to be asleep, we may not be as panicked or freaked by the storms of life.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Have a look at this Wikipedia entry if you don’t know about it: the BBC Weatherman Michael Fish famously said that there was no hurricane on the way…