Old Testament satnav

Image result for the man who took seven baths

When I was a child I used to love this book. It was about an Old Testament Syrian General called Naaman (you can read about him in 2 Kings 5). The story was told in rhyme and I asked for it as my bedtime story so often that I knew the whole story off by heart. My parents used to get so bored with it that they would make deliberate mistakes as they read it to try to see if I noticed. I did.

I was reminded of Naaman today, by my satnav. No, it didn’t get all ‘Old Testament’ on me: “At the roundabout take the third exit and then cross the Red Sea…” What happened was that I had installed a system update on it a while ago and ever since then it had developed a fault: when there was an instruction prior to a roundabout it used to say (for example) “Turn left, then cross the roundabout, third exit.” But after the update it just said “Turn left, then cross the roundabout.”

That was insufficient information – it meant that I didn’t know where to position my car approaching the roundabout or which way to indicate until I had got much closer to the roundabout, by which time it may have been too late. I sent an email to the support team at my satnav and explained the situation and received an email back telling me to reset the satnav.

I could not see how that would make a difference. It felt too easy. It felt like the old ‘turn it off and on again’ or ‘press ctrl+alt+delete’ approach to technical problems. I had already installed a new operating system and surely that would have involved a reset. And anyway, I didn’t want to risk losing all of the saved places that I had in the satnav.

So I wrote back to the tech support man and pointed all of this out. I wanted to know why a system reset would make a difference. I wanted a better answer.

And then I thought that perhaps the tech support man knew what he was talking about. I reckoned that maybe this was a problem they had come across before and that this was a solution that had worked. And anyway, all of my places were backed up in the cloud. And what could it hurt?

So I did a reset.

And then I reloaded my saved places and re-linked it to my phone to receive live traffic updates. And then I switched it on and set my next destination.

Lo and behold, thus spake the satnav: “Turn left, then enter the roundabout and take the third exit.” Ooh, new improved instructions and not only that but the voice was restored to the politely-spoken voice I remembered from before the update! Sarah the satnav was back to her best.

Ah. Time to eat some humble pie. I have written back to the tech support man and apologised for my attitude… I learnt a lesson in trusting others, letting go of pride and realising I don’t know everything. That was Naaman’s lesson too.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

how free is speech?

see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

One of the foundational principles of life is ‘freedom of speech’ (or freedom of expression to use the more inclusive term). In many countries it is enshrined in the Constitution and a basic ‘right’, and where it is denied by those in power it is one of the things that the people crave. It is one of the ‘self-evident’ principles of life that everyone should be free to say what they think without fear of persecution. People still die for this principle. The associated principle of ‘freedom of conscience’ (the freedom to believe whatever you want to believe) is one of the principles that drove the early Anabaptist dissenters to separate from the Established Church – Baptist Christians (should) have it in our DNA.

But even in a country that champions freedom of speech we put legal limits around it in public – those limits are defined by criminal and civil laws. You do not have the right to say things that are threatening, abusive or insulting to others. You do not have the right to say things that will incite others to hatred or violence. You do not have the right to say things that are factually incorrect about another person. If you do any of these things there are consequences: you may find that you are prosecuted or sued.

But aside from the legal sanctions that exist I think that there should be other limits on freedom of speech. Those limits are grace, love and humility.

I might disagree completely with someone else.

That is freedom of conscience.

I don’t have to agree with someone.

They don’t have to agree with me.

But if my disagreement leads me to vitriolic condemnation of that person or their position I have already lost the argument. If I resort to name-calling and insults the integrity of my position is undermined. If I insist on winning at all costs I have missed the opportunity to learn. If I misquote or am selective about what the other person has said in order to make them look silly I have only succeeded in making myself look silly. If I am motivated by prejudice it says nothing about the other person and everything about me

I can disagree. I do disagree. I seek to explain and educate. I proclaim (although that precludes conversation). I ask to be heard. I listen. I discuss. I defend. I even attack. I promote my position. But as a follower of Jesus these things need to be done with grace, love and humility. If not, see the previous paragraph.

I fervently believe in Jesus Christ, his message, his mission and his ministry. His life, death and resurrection are central to who I am, what I am and how I am. I believe that they are the most important events in human history. I would love everyone I know to share that because of what I believe. But I have no right to impose my views on others. If I resort to vitriol, condemnation, name-calling, insults, victory, misquoting or am motivated by prejudice then I have missed so much of what Jesus said and did.

You see the only time he really got angry, the only really harsh words that he had, the only stinging criticism he had was reserved for the religious leaders of his day (his own people). With everyone else he had a different approach: he invited, he explained, he illustrated, he was a living example, he laughed with, he told engaging stories, he challenged (provocatively), he was winsome, he wept with… he was loving, gracious and humble.

Speech is not free. It costs. If it is misused or abused the price we pay is the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously and the opportunity to grow and learn from others.

Please, God, may I be more like Jesus?

Be blessed, be a blessing

C3H5N3O9*

Today two of my Christian siblings are meeting for the first time. They are people who are unashamed of their faith and whose faith clearly makes a difference to how they live, how they treat others and how they are perceived by others. Everyone I know who knows who these people are speaks highly of them.

They are, in my humble opinion, good free samples of Jesus.

explosionHow do they do it? I don’t know for sure but I would imagine that they have a humble prayer life, and a heightened awareness of who Jesus Christ is. The combination of those two things is as powerful as a mixture of nitrogen and glycerine*.

A humble prayer life is one that starts from where we are rather than where we think we ought to be. It is a prayer life that recognises our dependence on God. It is a prayer life that acknowledges that all we have is as a result of his grace. This pome was inspired by another person I know who has such a prayer life:

prayerpome

I wish I could pray like Teresa:

I wish it just came to me quick

she’s so calm and serene and so godly

and I only pray like, erm, Nick.

When Teresa prays we all listen:

with ears pricked and mouths open wide

in awe at the depth of the insight

that comes from her saintly inside.

I wish I could pray like Teresa:

with words that are gentle and kind

pastorally sensitive praying

not the first thing that comes to my mind.

I wish I could pray like Teresa:

a top-notch grade 1 intercessor

while my stuttering words come weakly

in rough phrases that fail to impress her.

Teresa’s prayers are always so perfect:

fluently considered aforethoughts

that flow from her mouth like a poem

that rhymes and resonates like it ought.

I wish I could pray like Teresa:

expressing the depths of her soul.

but God doesn’t want me to be her

he just wants me to say what I think… even if it doesn’t rhyme or make much sense

And then there’s the heightened awareness of who Jesus Christ is. When people speak to me of their faith being dry or routine I always suggest (alongside other things that relate directly to their own circumstances) that they go back to reading one of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Because if our faith is based on anything it’s based on him. And if it’s not based on him, it’s based on nothing. But as we become more aware of who he is, and that HE loves us, it can be transformational.

Oh, in case you were wondering… the two Christians who are meeting today for the first time are Pope Francis 1 and Queen Elizabeth 2. Isn’t God amazing that they are my Christian brother and sister!

Be blessed, be a blessing

* nitroglycerine – it is very volatile and makes a BIG bang! (And in case the mention of this stuff here triggers alerts for national security services, welcome to you too.)

 

broken angel

While I was on Sabbatical Leave in autumn 2012 I took a week’s retreat at the Society of Mary and Martha in Devon, on the edge of Dartmoor. It was a wonderfully refreshing and relaxing time. On my last day I went into their little shop and saw a small stone angel, praying. I felt that it would be a nice reminder of my time on retreat, and also a reminder of the on-going prayerful support of others in my life, and how I can be that for others too. So I bought it (along with some wonderful home-made chutney).

I placed it on our mantelpiece at home and it sat there happily, praying, until one day the angel got knocked off. Despite having wings it did not so much fly as plummet and hit the stone hearth below. It split into fragments. I managed to find most of them, but could not find the ‘hands’.

I thought about throwing it away, but I couldn’t bring myself to, so instead I glued the angel back together, hoping that I might later find the ‘hands’ to complete it again. If this was a lovely story the next bit would be about me finding the ‘hands’ when I least expected it and in an unexpected place. But it’s not a lovely story – I have never found the hands. It is a story about learning from God.

The damaged praying angel now sits in my study on my desk – not lovely enough for the mantelpiece. I looked at it a little earlier and felt another urge to throw it away. It is still damaged and incomplete.

2014-01-21 09.40.45Then I paused. Perhaps the damaged angel is now a reminder of different things. It is a reminder that God loves and values me no matter how broken or damaged I am. He is not going to discard me. It is a reminder that my praying is not perfect but is still appreciated and important. It is a reminder that God’s Spirit is restoring me, but that work is not completed this side of death. It is a reminder that it is better to come to God humbly aware of our brokenness and failings than to come proud and full of self-righteousness and self-importance.

So the broken angel has an important place on my desk. And those reminders have an important place in my life.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

a lesson in humility

Jesus face-planted as Nick got it wrong again
Jesus face-planted as Nick got it wrong again

Last night we had a Church Meeting where, among other things, we appointed new deacons (those who serve by leading and lead by serving). Three people had generously agreed to be nominated and I was thrilled that all three had agreed to stand – they are all brilliant Christians who have so much to offer us as a church.

I was upset, therefore, when one of the three did not receive sufficient votes within the meeting to be elected. If I am honest I was a bit annoyed too. And I was very concerned for the person who had not been elected – how would they feel having been willing to stand and then not been appointed?

Immediately after the meeting I was able to meet with the person who had not been successful and was instantly blessed by their grace and wisdom. Her wisdom, faith and humility humbled me. And I had to change my attitude.

At the start of the meeting I read a passage from the Bible and mentioned how we believe that God speaks to us all when we are gathered together. I prayed that he would guide us. And before the ‘election’ I said that it was not a democracy but a theocracy, where we are seeking God’s will together and using the method of voting as a way of discerning that (it’s less messy than some of the methods mentioned in the Bible!).

In our time together after the meeting Silvia (she’s given me permission to use her name) told me that she felt peace about the outcome because it was God’s will. That blessed me more than she could have known, and also made me stop and reflect.

When the meeting voted and discerned that it was not right for one of the nominees and I was upset and annoyed I was actually behaving a bit like a petulant child who did not get his way, and I was actually upset and annoyed with God! Oops.

So a couple of apologies are in order: sorry to God for ignoring him when he had led us and being sufficiently arrogant to believe that I knew better than him; and sorry to the church for not practising what I was preaching and not having enough faith in God and trust in his people that we would get it right.

I need a big badge saying, “Please be patient, God hasn’t finished with me yet.”

The wonderful thing is that God is gracious and willing to give fresh starts when we ask him.

Be blessed, be a blessing

graduation

Yesterday afternoon was spent at Essex University attending two graduation ceremonies. No, not for me, but in my capacity as Baptist Chaplain at the University. It was inspiring watching the hundreds of graduates and hearing the joy and excitement of their friends and families who had supported them through the process.

In congratulating the Graduates the Chancellor of the University commented that the hard work starts here. This life is not a dress rehearsal – you only get one shot at it.

Acclaimed songwriter Annie Lennox and London Olympic star Laura Trott were awarded honorary degrees at the University of Essex todayTwo inspiring women were awarded honorary Doctorates. Annie Lennox was awarded a Doctorate for her campaigning and work for human rights and many other causes. The University’s Dr Pam Cox spoke about Ms Lennox’s support for a wide-range of humanitarian projects which have made vital, practical, life-saving differences – above all in South Africa. Dr Cox also mentioned Ms Lennox’s ‘SING’ campaign which works with women and children with HIV – raising awareness regarding preventing the transmission of the virus from mother to child.

Annie Lennox’s speech was inspiring, humble, humorous and uplifting. At least it lifted all of us to our feet in a standing ovation. I stood as much for what she is doing to make a difference in the world as for her speech. You can read her speech in full here (click ‘see more’)

The second Honorary Doctorate was awarded to Laura Trott. She is a phenomenal cyclist who won two gold medals at the 2012 Olympics, holds world records and is also a multiple world champion. She took up cycling because her mum wanted to lose weight (honestly) and to try to control her asthma. The idea that she is asthmatic and still hurtles around the track at such phenomenal speeds is astounding.

Her speech was shorter and of a different style to Annie Lennox’s speech, but it was nonetheless also inspiring – especially considering that this 21 year old is not a trained public speaker. I do like her simple tweet after the ceremony: “Just call me Dr Trott.” Simple, yet I suspect revealing a degree (pun intended) of pride with a big smile.

So what was most inspiring: graduates and their families; Annie Lennox; Laura Trott? Actually it was a conversation I had with someone who simply introduced theirself with their first name and surname. I later discovered that he was Lord … and is very influential and important. The humility was most impressive on a day when people were being honoured with awards.

It reminded me that I should seek to impress an audience of One. His approval and joy is more than enough, keeps us humble and reminds us that we all need to be cautious to keep humble when others praise us and seek to pass on the glory to the One who deserves it.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

witnessing

This morning I gladly witnessed some signatures for some friends in our church. It’s something I do on a regular basis. I was chatting with my friends as I signed to verify their signatures and recalled that I have verified peoples’ identity for their passport applications, countersigned visa and residency applications, signed wedding certificates, witnessed wills, and supported applications for children who are part of our church to be admitted to church schools.

I am very happy to do this, not merely because it is helping someone out but also because it is a tiny way of reaffirming the status of clergy in our society. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a saint (just ask my wife). I am not looking to be put on a pedestal (it’s way too easy to fall off them) and I am not looking to be revered (even though I am a Reverend). The reason I am glad to reaffirm the status of clergy in our society is that our reputation and thus the reputation of the church and therefore the reputation of Jesus has been somewhat tarnished. Sadly the public falls from grace of a few have sullied the reputation of many.

There is an ancient story of a small boy who came back from Sunday School and was asked what they had talked about.

“Sin.”

“What did they say about sin?”

“I’m not sure. But I think they were against it.”

Yes. Absolutely. We are against sin. But (and regularly bloggites here will know this of me) I am always acutely conscious that Jesus told his followers not to judge others. He warned against hypocrisy (and reserved his harshest words to condemn religious leaders who were hypocritical). He told us not to attempt to sort out a minor defect in someone else’s life while we require major surgery in ours. When I feel my fingers tighten around a stone in my hand I remember a man drawing in the sand and asking me if I am without sin.

So, yes I am against sin. First and foremost I am against it in my own life. I regularly need to ask for God’s grace and forgiveness for the times when I allow his reputation and my life to be tarnished. I need to ask for fresh starts on a daily basis. I need a fresh infilling of his companion-Spirit to help me.

But also I pray that those who don’t mind throwing stones at churches will recognise that we are also places of grace, forgiveness, healing and fresh starts. We are all striving to be more like the people God created us to be, but we are not perfect. Forgive us if we ever project a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Please God may we project a ‘just like you, but forgiven’ attitude instead.

Perhaps if we are tempted to condemn someone we should fill our mouths with humble pie instead?

Be blessed, be a blessing.