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

what God has got wrong

I think God has got something wrong. Before I go any further I should warn you that this bloggage could be interrupted by a bolt of lightning as I explain my heresy, so if there is an unanticipated interruption you will know what has happened.

So, gulp, here goes.

I think that God has got this whole ‘grace’ thing wrong. I mean, it’s just too easy isn’t it? If / when we stuff things up / make a mistake / fall from grace / backslide / stumble* (*or insert whatever euphemism for ‘sin’ you like) all we have to do is go back to God, say “sorry” (and mean it) and ask for forgiveness and a fresh start.

And he does it!

Every time!

And there is no cost on our part. Because of Jesus’ death he’s done it all.

And that’s his mistake I think he has made it too easy. If we had to do something, anything,  to earn our forgiveness I think we would take it a bit more seriously, wouldn’t we? What if we had to pay a penance in order to seal the deal, or even just to show him how really sorry we are? What if we had to do something positive or we had to suffer something bad to redress the karmic balance of the Universe? That would be fair, and it might make us think twice before we fell off the wagon* (*or insert whatever euphemism for ‘sin’ you like – in fact do that every time you see a *).

Because he’s done all of the hard work to achieve our forgiveness, because his grace is so lavish and generous, we take it for granted like a spoilt child who knows that if they get into debt millionaire daddy’s credit card will always come to the rescue and get them out of troub…




Actually, that’s a bit more like it, isn’t it? Isn’t it easier for us if God is sitting at his computer with his finger poised over the ‘smite’ key when we get things wrong? At least that way we know we will get our just desserts. And that might make us pause a bit longer and perhaps think before our next moral failure*.

So, and I may be being a bit presumptuous here, hasn’t God got it wrong with this grace, unlimited forgiveness, limitless love thing? Hasn’t he heard of ‘tough love’ or ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’?

At this point some of you may be expecting me to stop the rant and say something that turns it all on its head. But I am not going to. Because God has got this wrong. It’s too easy. It’s unfair. None of the other religions in the world make it this easy, do they? They have lots of penance, sacrifice, karmic retribution and good works to balance out the scales and make it more likely that we will be accepted into heaven / reincarnate as a better being / achieve Nirvana (or whatever they say happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil). At least with them we have something to do. At least we can contribute to our own redemption.

And that’s the crazy thing about this little thing called ‘love’. God loved the world (aka you and me) so much that he gave… Jesus’ death has not so much improved things for us on the balance of probabilities, he has blazed the trail and made our forgiveness, restoration and acceptance by God a nailed on certainty (literally!). Perhaps it’s not so much that God has made it too easy. Perhaps it’s more that without Jesus it’s too hard for us. We can’t do enough to absolve ourselves of our slip ups*, That would be like being a billion pounds in debt and going to the bank with your piggy bank and asking if they will take that instead, or perhaps even asking if you can write them a cheque from that account.

And when we realise that while it’s easy for us it was not easy for Jesus, when we grasp the extent of God’s love, when we sense how seriously he takes our lapses in judgement* and the lengths he has gone to in order to deal with them, then perhaps we look at things from a different perspective.

Then grace does not look so cheap. Then our blunders* become less trivial. Then we realise that it’s easy for us because God loves us. Then we recognise that God has accepted the inequity of the situation. Then we understand that to trivialise and take forgiveness and grace for granted is probably more to do with our own self-centredness*. Then we understand that the attitude with which I began this bloggage is to do with my own ability to trivialise the significance of what I say / do / think and an unwillingness to think about the bigger picture. Then we start “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)

That is the sort of thing that can drive you to your knees.

Which is a good place to start again.

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

customer service

I do like nice coffee. It is one of my little indulgences. And to that end I was chuffed when Sally (Mrs Nukelearfishing) gave me a nice glass mug (full of sweets) for Valentine’s Day. Somehow it makes drinking nice coffee just that little bit nicer. In fact it was so nice that when I received a birthday 25% discount voucher from the high street store* from which she purchased the glass mug (which was very nice of them) I decided to use it (and some of the money I was kindly given for my birthday) to buy three more of them so I could bless others with nice coffee in nice glass coffee mugs.

(It also means that I have a supply of them for when the dishwasher has not yet worked its magic on any I have recently used).

I ordered the glass mugs from the high street store’s website, using the discount code, and was pleased with how quickly the delivery arrived. Because I am a bit of a cheapskate I decided to have them delivered to the local store (which is free) rather than pay to have them delivered to my home and then having to chase them up when the card is pushed through the door saying that they were unable to deliver my parcel. When I got to the store yesterday I went to the collection point and the nice lady went and got the box in which they were delivered.

She opened the box up and two of the three glass mugs were cocooned in amazing protective paper ‘cocoons’. I think I could have dropped them from an upstairs window and they would not have broken. The third one was in a little bubble wrap envelope. I made a joke to the nice lady about wondering what that mug had done wrong not to have been wrapped so well and she smiled indulgently (see, I told you she was nice). She wrapped it in some of the packaging that was in the box and then put all three in a bag for me to take home.

When I got home I unwrapped the glass mugs and was disappointed to see that the one which was in the bubble wrap envelope had a couple of obvious scratches on it. Perhaps that is why it was on its own and not in a paper cocoon. The other two were in pristine condition. I decided to contact the customer services people on the phone number that came with the receipt and a very nice man on the other end of the phone listened to my problem, apologised sincerely, and arranged for a new glass mug to be delivered to the store today. He also said that I did not need to return the scratched one and that if it was serviceable (it is) I could use that too.

Now that’s what I call good customer service. Indeed, I think that is a good example of grace.

It made me wonder whether that is the sort of grace and service that people expect to receive from churches? If not, why not? And surely we should be exceeding that considering the grace we have received from God…

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I am not endorsing any particular retail business but if you wanted to know which one it was it is often known by the initials of the two founders that might sound like ’emaness’.

d-e-r dum, d-e-r dum, d-e-r dum, dum dum, dum dum, dum dum dum dum danaaah!

[a poor written representation of the Jaws soundtrack!]Smile

Just when you least expect it, when your guard is down, when you are looking in the other direction… he leaps out and knocks you sideways.

No, I am not talking about some sort of predator or assassin. I am talking about God.

Perhaps I should explain a bit more. I don’t mean that God assaults you, or that he attacks you or hurts you. What I mean is that his grace is so abundant and he is at work in ways beneath the surface of life that you never expect (and often don’t know) that when it bursts forth it takes you by surprise. We shouldn’t be surprised because we should expect the unexpected with God (except that if it is unexpected you can’t expect it). But he is a God of surprises.

I have experienced that and heard others talk about that this week:

Radios playing in two different public places at two different times (perhaps even two different stations) both playing the same song with words that speak grace into a person’s life.

An unplanned conversation that deepens a relationship and ministers grace.

An email received (following a mistake that caused someone to be upset) oozed grace as God ministered to that person who had been upset, despite the mistake.

A requested opportunity to visit someone in hospital outside visiting hours that is warmly received by the staff allowing an unexpected encounter with grace through sharing bread and wine.*

Unsolicited words of affirmation that gently rubbed grace into wounds of disappointment.

You can be part of God’s surprise squad today. How might he use you to share grace? Be prepared to be surprised yourself too!

Be blessed, be a blessing


*grape juice – no alcohol on the ward!

in finite resources

emptyWe are constantly reminded that this planet’s resources are finite. There is only a limited amount of oil and gas in the ground. There is only so much ore to be mined. There are only so many things that can be made. Even the Sun will run out eventually (although not for a loooong time!). This is why there is a growing awareness of the need to recycle our resources and why, for example, fuel consumption is becoming more important (or at least as important) in car design.

But I am also worried about another shortage.

What if there was a grace shortage? What if God ran out of grace for us?

One of the phrases from the Bible that has been really meaningful to me is from 2 Corinthians 12 verse 9: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’

It was God’s response to Paul’s fervent prayer to take away something he called ‘a thorn in his flesh’. I relate to it in many ways, not the least of which was when I had a constant migraine for about 10 years. I prayed that it would stop but in response I felt I received ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’

God gave me the grace and power to cope.

And of course we need God’s grace constantly – his grace is shown in his desire to forgive us even when we ignore him or deliberately do things we know are not what he wants. His grace is revealed in the way he is so patient with us. And so many more ways.

But what if it ran out?

Thankfully there is no sign that it will: we can never exhaust God’s grace.

But do we sometimes run out of grace? I sometimes lack grace in the way I am with others. I sometimes lack grace in the way I deal with adversity. I sometimes lack grace in the way I respond to criticism.

When I do, I need to refill from the infinite fountain of grace. At those times I need to go back to the limitless grace of God and ask not only for a fresh outpouring on me, but also in me and through me.

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’

Be blessed, be a blessing


Context Menu

Apparently this is known as a ‘context menu’

Context makes a big difference doesn’t it?

This morning I looked at a famous passage in one of Paul’s letters, written to a bunch of Christians in a church in Philippi, Greece:

Final exhortations

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

It’s always worth remembering that this was written to a group of Christians (aka a church) not an individual, even though we often individualise and personalise it. If we are to be like that together it seems to assume a strong mutual accountability and closeness of relationship. That becomes clearer when you set this passage in the context of the letter from which it is taken. Immediately prior to writing these inspirational words Paul had to write a section about two women who had fallen out with each other. He asked the church leader (and because this would have been read out to the church, by extension to everyone in the church) to help them sort out their disagreement. And it seems to me that the rejoicing always and focusing on the positive things in life are ways in which we can do that – put the disagreement in the context of all that God has done for us, all the blessings we receive, the positive godly character of the one with whom we have a disagreement.

This is not an autocratic injunction from ‘on high’ but comes from affection and a deep friendship. Paul ‘pleads’ with the two women ‘to be of the same mind in the Lord’. To give us more context it’s worth remembering that the church in Philippi was the first church founded in Europe and Paul seems to have a great affection for the relatively new believers there – read the opening 11 verses of chapter 1 and you’ll see what I mean. It broke his heart to hear how two of his friends, relatively new Christians, had fallen out and he wanted the rest of the church to help them come to a Godly resolution.

What a contrast to how some churches treated ‘discipline’ in the past. If you read records of Baptist Church Meetings from a couple of centuries ago you will read of how people were excluded from membership or receiving communion because (for example) they had been seen coming out of a theatre, or had been drunk in the street. Admittedly there may have been a lot of pastoral care that is unrecorded but the records suggest a harsh, puritanical, judgemental attitude and swift action to ‘expel the immoral brother’. That approach is dis-graceful – removing grace.

I have seen some of these records and while I don’t condone when people have ‘fallen from grace’ I would also want to emphasis grace as a response.  Churches should be places of grace, or to use a phrase I came up with a while ago, ‘Grace-rich environments’. And since I started off talking about context, we need to remember that we are all in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, and fresh starts are always available to everyone, so let’s help one another to be free samples of the One who was grace personified.

Be blessed, be a blessing



istock_000011793147large4.jpgYesterday we baptised three people with very different stories about how they came to faith, how Jesus has made a difference in their lives, and how they decided that it was good to be baptised.

We had one man who had only recently come to faith and told us of how his faith was helping him to cope with some of the difficulties he has in life. There was another man who told us of how he had gone to church as a child, drifted when at University and had found a fully fledged faith when he moved to Colchester. And then there was the man who is approaching his second fortieth birthday (his phrase) who had a special answer to prayer that led him to decide that he had to be baptised, having become a follower of Jesus as a lad in 1947!

Those brief summaries do not do justice to the way that they shared with us yesterday, and they do not give any sense of how special it was to baptise them. I said last week how much of a privilege I find it when I am invited to take part in a funeral thanksgiving service for someone. It’s also an immense privilege to baptise someone. I find it blesses me at least as much as it blesses those we baptise.

Isn’t that often the way with God? We think we are blessing someone else and he blesses us at the same time. In 1998 I was part of a team that went to Zimbabwe to help a church with a building project. I came back blessed. I have prayed for people and been blessed by their response. I have sent an encouraging email or text message and been blessed by how timely it has been. 

I am sure that there is no direct causal link here. God cannot be reduced to equations. If you want to be blessed, don’t think that you will automatically be blessed if you try to bless others. God sees our motives and if we do things for the self-satisfaction we feel in those circumstances then that is probably all the reward we get in those circumstances. 

What I am saying is that God is so gracious that when we do things on his behalf to bless others he also blesses us. He has more than enough blessing to go around!

What is this blessing? Gratitude, love, joy, peace, hope, humility, encouragement, hugs, and so much more – all wrapped up in the affirmation that God has been able to use us. Nobody is useless to God.

Be a blessing, be blessed.