Over the last week or so hate has been bothering me. Not, I hasten to add, because I am feeling hated. And not because I hate someone else. I was reading some comments online from someone I don’t know but whom I respect about the level of negative, critical, judgmental, cruel and rude comments they were receiving. It was horrible.
And to make things worse, the comments were from people who said they were Christians!
It led me to post two Tweets:
It breaks my heart when I read judgmental comments online from people who follow Jesus. He was so inclusive of all.
I am acutely aware that by posting these Tweets I may well be guilty of judging too. But I feel a little bit justified because I am not naming and shaming someone. It’s not trolling. And as a note of self-restraint I recognise that therein lies the beginning of the thought process that can lead someone to feel justified in writing and posting horrible things about someone else with whom they disagree. Can’t we learn to disagree well?
These Tweets got an interesting and encouraging range of responses. I was getting ready for a lively discussion…
Then at 10:33pm on Monday 22nd May hate took on a hideous and heinous new form when a suicide bomber killed 22 and injured hundreds at the end of a concert at the Manchester Arena. The act in itself is barbaric, but to deliberately do it at a time and a place where you know that young people will be present adds an evil twist to an already evil act.
My initial response was stunned silence. I could not find the words to express how I felt. The tears that kept welling up in my eyes and the lump in my throat were the most eloquent expression I had.
Later on I found myself reflecting on the hate that had been expressed. I thought about Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s words:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
These words appeared all over social media. They are deep, profound, defiant words that also express truth.
So I let them lead me into a personal prayer:
You cannot stop hatred with more hatred
You cannot prevent darkness with more darkness
You cannot reduce pain with more pain
You cannot defuse anger with more anger
You cannot defeat injustice with more injustice
You cannot reduce outrage with more outrage
So I resolve afresh to pray for love, light, healing, peace, justice and grace in myself that I might share it with others
You see the first response that matters in the face of hatred, anger, evil and all else that seeks to destroy and tear down is the one within us. We can add to them, or we can diminish them. We can give them energy or we can starve them of life.
In some ways it’s counter-intuitive, it goes against the self-preservation instinct within us all. It is selfless, it is generous, it is loving. I believe it’s a glimpse of God.
We saw it in action on Monday evening:
The homeless man who ran into the arena foyer against the flow of people seeking to escape the carnage – to see if he could help the injured and comfort the dying.
The taxi drivers who took people home at no charge.
The people who opened their homes to strangers who were bewildered and didn’t know how they would get home that night.
The emergency services who had to deal with the carnage with dignity and professionalism.
The hospital staff who turned up for extra shifts.
The many people who gave blood for the first time.
People who brought lunches and cups of tea for the overburdened hospital staff who had no time to stop.
And so much more.
Hate is an acidic, corrosive, ugly word. It’s an even worse emotion. And as an action it is beyond appalling.
But it does not win when love rises up in our hearts. Love wins. Love wins.
Be blessed, be a blessing
If you are one of the poor souls who reads my bloggages regularly you will know that from time to time I mention that I suffer from Chronic Migraine and Cluster Headaches. From about 2002 onwards there has been a constant Migraine headache going on inside my skull. The only variation was in intensity of the pain levels. To go with this is a regular routine of Cluster Headaches. The CH attacks make the migraine feel pleasant by comparison and are debilitating beyond belief.
Before you start getting the handkerchiefs out for a sob story let me say that since I had an operation to install an Occipital Nerve Stimulator I have been more or less Migraine and Cluster Headache free while it has been working, which is life-transforming. The headaches are still there. They are still firing away, which I discovered to my painful cost when the battery in my first ONS expired and the headache pain resurfaced almost instantaneously. But the ONS means that my brain no longer pays attention to the pain signals.
(If you don’t like the idea of surgical implantation you might like to skip the next paragraph and pick up the bloggage below the picture).
I am SO grateful to have this gadget implanted within me and to feel the reassurring ‘fizz’ in the back of my head where the wires are implanted. Each week I sit for a while and re-charge the battery that is inserted just under the skin at the top of my chest (no, I don’t plug in, it’s an induction charging process).
(If you skipped the last paragraph, welcome back). The great news for me is that because of this implant I am pain free on the whole. The headaches are there still, but I can’t feel them because my brain has been tricked into ignoring the pain signals.
However, occasionally I get a bit self-conscious about the bits and pieces inside me. Last weekend I attended the Baptist Assembly and as we were sitting in a row in the auditorium one of my self-conscious moments came over me as I realised that all of the people behind me were able to see the scar in the back of my head (oops, sorry, another potential squeam moment). I started to wonder what they were thinking about it, and if they were put off by it. I started to feel uncomfortable about it and wanted to put a hat on to hide it.
And then I realised that most people weren’t likely to be feeling as awkward about it as I was. I realised that if anyone asked me about it I would be able to tell them about the wonderful life-transforming nature of the surgery that led to that scar. And I realised that, once again, I was grateful that I have the scar rather than the headaches. I still wouldn’t mind if my hair regrew in that area and covered it (or indeed the rest of my scalp too) but I became comfortable once again in my own skin, scars and all.
That then got me thinking about how people can be really uncomfortable about how other people perceive them. We all want to be liked and appreciated. We don’t want other people to think badly of us. We try to keep our weaknesses and failures and difficulties hidden from others.
But as a follower of Jesus I want people to know that I have not got myself completely sorted, I still make mistakes, I still let people down, I still get things wrong. I want people to know that I am a work in progress. And while I don’t rejoice or revel in these things they are like the visible scar on the back of my head and I am happy that they are visible because they are testimony to the change that God is bringing about in me. I want people to know that my relationship with God, the example, teaching, forgiveness and fresh start offered by Jesus Christ and the personal experience and presence of the Spirit of God make all the difference in the world to me. Slowly but surely I am being changed to become a better person. The scars and wounds of fragile human nature and fecklessness are still present, but they now point to the fact that my identity in God has been changed to ‘forgiven’.
Just as my ONS means that my headaches no longer have the debilitating effect on me they once had, and it gives me the opportunity to live life with a broader smile on my face, so my relationship with God described above makes all the difference. It’s not that I am perfect and that bad stuff will no longer affect me – far from it. The bad stuff still happens but it happens in the wider context of God’s forgiving, all-embracing gracious love, his gentle presence, a certainty, a hope and a meaning for life within me that are life-transforming for me.
And my story includes an experience that without that forgiving, all-embracing gracious love, presence, certainty, hope and meaning for life within me during the darkest days of the rampant Migraines and Cluster Headaches I would not have been able to live in even the semblance of coping that I had. God’s grace was enough when there was nothing else but pain. The pain didn’t go away, but the all-consuming meaninglessness of it was given a different context of life, hope, love and strength that came from God, not from within.
I hope and pray that you might experience that for yourself too.
Be blessed, be a blessing.
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.
“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
Are you any good at waiting?
Are a patient person, or do you get frustrated when your plans are delayed?
Do you see a red light (or even an amber one) as an opportunity to stop, admire the view, and do some thinking or do you see it as an imposition and an irritation – drumming your fingers on the steering wheel until the light turns green?
Do you find waiting easy, even when things are out of your control, or do you want to do all you can to expedite matters?
In the Bible there’s a verse which in some translations says, “those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength…” (Isaiah 40:31). In my translation it says, “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength…” [my italics]. The first translation made me wonder whether it was about waiting on heavenly tables and getting a tip from God!
Why the difference? The Hebrew word that is variously translated as ‘wait’ and ‘hope’ has different meanings and nuances all contained in the same word. It can mean ‘hope in a certain outcome’; ‘waiting patiently’; and ‘resting trustingly’ and in fact all three aspects are right. As a teenager we had a labrador dog called Bonnie. We used to balance a dog biscuit on Bonnie’s nose and tell her to wait. She would look at us pleadingly as she waited for the instruction to eat it. She would also drool, which was often an encouragement to us to allow her to have the biscuit before we drowned in drool. But she waited expectantly / hopefully / trustingly / patiently.
People who are expectant, patient and trusting in their relationship with God are promised renewed strength. It’s as if we keep putting on fresh strength like we put on fresh clothes daily. The strength is not specifically physical, it is the strength to persevere, to rise above life’s difficulties and problems, to keep going despite the odds. It’s an unnatural strength.
It’s the strength seen in people whose faith in Jesus puts their life in danger yet they refuse to deny that faith. It’s the strength shown by those who faith in God is mocked and ridiculed by others who do not share it.
When my children were a lot younger when they got tired we would carry them. We would tell them to hold on, and they would hold on tight, but actually they were held anyway. Waiting / expecting / hoping / trusting / resting in God is like that – we hold on to him in faith while, whether or not we are aware of it, we are held.
Be blessed, be a blessing
Regular bloggists among you will know that I am rather keen on magic tricks. I don’t have any special magic powers, I went to a normal school rather than Hogwarts, I am not in league with the Devil and don’t access the ‘dark side’: it’s all down to skill, technique, practice and sleight of mouth.
So today, as a special treat, I am going to perform an illusion for you on my blog.
I want you to try not to think of anything in advance of this, but I am going to attempt a bloggage-mind-reading. Clear your mind [insert ‘that didn’t take as long as it should’ type magician joke here].
For those who are unfamiliar with them, let me explain about playing cards. Playing cards come in four suits – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. They are marked from 1-10 (one also known as the ace) followed by three court cards – Jack, Queen and King. That makes 52 different cards in a deck of cards (plus Jokers if you want to be pedantic).
Now, when I tell you I want you to think of any playing card apart from Jokers. Not yet! When I tell you.
Okay, think of a card. You may have thought of the Queen of Hearts but that’s not surprising because it’s in the picture.
So now change your mind and think of a different card with a different suit.
Now change your mind one more time and think of another different card, not the first one.
You are thinking of…
[extended dramatic pause]
[additional text to put my mind-reading answer further down the page, forcing you to scroll down to it and making sure that it was less likely to have been on the screen when you started thinking of cards so you can’t claim I influenced you]
You are thinking of…
the seven of spades.
This is the moment where you leap up screaming, “That’s amazing!” (I hope you are on a train at the moment!). You will be wondering how I did that and are either extolling my skill and calling the BBC to demand I have my own TV show or are calling a psychologist to sort out the mess I have just made with your mind.
Actually most of you won’t have leapt up screaming, “That’s amazing!” Most of you will have been thinking of a different card. Now you may be feeling rather disappointed and let down because what I promised and what you had hoped for was not what you got. But try to imagine how you would have felt if I had chosen your card – a freely chosen card that I could not have known when I wrote this bloggage.
All I did was create an expectation and choose a random card. I had a 1 in 52 chance of being right. Most of the time I will be wrong, but probability suggests that some of you will have been thinking of the seven of spades. And for those people, for a moment, the improbable or even the impossible happened.
Advent has been a season of expectation and hope. We reflect on God’s promises and how, at the time of Jesus’ birth many people felt disappointed and let down because they were not getting what they hoped for. We reflect on our own hopes and how sometimes they go unfulfilled.
But we also anticipate how, when Jesus was born, those promises were fulfilled. Not in a spectacular way for everyone but in a subtle way to a few. And for those few there was a realisation that the impossible and improbable had happened to them and it overflowed in joy.
The wonderful thing is that now, because the improbable and impossible has happened, we can all experience it for ourselves because it’s available to us all. Jesus the God-human born in Bethlehem can be born in you too.
This will be my last bloggage before Christmas, so I pray for a hope-fulfilled, fear-turned-to-joy, peace-on-earth Christmas for you all.
Be blessed, be a blessing.
Regular bloggists among you will know that occasionally something strikes me while I am preparing for a sermon and I will share it here as a kind of sneak preview as God is shaping what I say. Today I want to go back to what I shared last Sunday morning. We were looking at the encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus* (Luke 24:13-44). In that passage we get an amazing summary of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. what follows is more or less what I shared from that point in the narrative on Sunday morning…
Isn’t [Luke 24:19-24] an astonishing summary of Jesus’ life? In the Message version it is just 139 words long. If you ever want a summary of Jesus’ life you could do a lot worse than use the Gospel according to Cleopas and Mary*. And yet…
And yet it is an incomplete summary. It is full of hopes but they are hopes that have been extinguished. It is full of questions and doubts. For me the saddest phrase is the one that begins: “But we had hoped…” They had hoped Jesus was The One. They had hoped that this was God’s moment. They had hoped that Jesus would live up to their expectations, perhaps even when he was arrested and on trial. But those hopes were dashed when he was crucified and died. They were buried with Jesus in the tomb.
So as they walked back to Emmaus they carried with them unfulfilled hope, disappointment, sadness, bewilderment, doubt and confusion.
We all carry questions, doubts, problems on our journey of life like Cleopas and Mary. I include myself in that.
I have “But I had hoped…” moments in my life and in my ministry:
“But I had hoped that I would not let Jesus down as much as I do.”
“But I had hoped that I would not disappoint people.”
“But I had hoped that more people would become Christians.”
What are you carrying with you on your journey of faith? Do you have hopes and ambitions that are unfulfilled? Is there disappointment, sadness, bewilderment, doubt and confusion? Would you include the phrase, “But I had hoped…” in your own story of faith?
They had looked at the Bible as the story of how God would redeem Israel from suffering – seeing God as distant and remote – but instead the Bible is the story of how God would redeem the world through suffering – close up and personal.
Jesus went through the chronology of the Bible “beginning with Moses and the prophets… all Scriptures.” He showed them how it makes sense that God took the suffering, rejection and sin on himself in order to release people from it. He showed them how the Bible points towards the Messiah’s death on behalf of humanity.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we are looking at things from the wrong end of the telescope. Does God seem remote and distant, not involved in our life? Or is he up close and personal? A remote and distant God cannot respond to “But I had hoped…” as much as a God who is up close and personal – within us by his Spirit.
A God who has dealt with sin and has experienced the pain of rejection and death, is one with whom we can share our “But I had hoped…” moments and ask for his help.
I find Jesus’ death and resurrection help me to read the Bible. It helps me regain a better perspective. It helps to increase my awareness of Jesus who died for me. It helps to regain an awareness of the Jesus who was raised from the dead. It doesn’t matter which part of the Bible you read, the Old and New Testaments both point to him, look for what the Bible is saying about Jesus and you may find that the telescope turns around and the distant God becomes the up close and personal God.
The reality of Jesus’ resurrection can transform how we see things. No longer is death and suffering the end, it is the means that justifies us in God’s sight.
One more thing I would suggest that will help us with our “But we had hoped…” moments is not to travel alone. Cleopas and Mary were travelling together, “talking with each other about everything that had happened.” It was as they discussed things that Jesus drew near. This is why prayer triplets, house groups or just informally sharing with others is so helpful. We can find that as we are honestly sharing our doubts and struggles that our companions can share them with us. And we may well find that as we pray about them together Jesus draws alongside us. we may not recognise him at first, but he promises to be with us.
It was their encounter with the risen Jesus as they walked along that rekindled their extinguished hope.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*I believe that Cleopas is the same person called ‘Clopas’ in John’s gospel and described as the husband of one of the Marys who followed Jesus. That’s why I called Cleopas’s companion ‘Mary’.