mortal

death valleyEven though it is the holiday season at present, death has not taken a vacation. Over the past few days there have been many reminders of this as well known people have died, and there have also been some tragic accidents that have resulted in death. We must never forget that behind the headlines are people in pain, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. For the friends and relatives of those who have died this is personal pain and benumbing bereavement.

Somewhat dissonantly Jesus said that those who are grieving and mourning are blessed because they will be comforted. He was not being insensitive, even though at face value what he said doesn’t seem to make sense in the face of bereavement and death. But the blessing comes not because of the grieving but because of the comfort. God is always present and he is especially present to those who are bereft when we allow his Spirit to prompt us to be his hands, his voice, his presence, his comfort. It is an amazing privilege to do that. People of faith (and others) will (rightly) surround those who are experiencing the devastation and desolation with prayer, love and support.

Death is something of a taboo subject. That’s why we have so many synonyms and euphemisms for it. We don’t like to think about it or talk about it until we are forced to confront our mortality by what has happened to others. Death is something that our medical profession is constantly fighting: we heard of new developments in vaccination against Ebola last week and I think one of the reasons why it was celebrated was that it looks like it’s humans 1 death 0. But every day in hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, hospices and homes those in the caring professions (and I use the phrase deliberately) do battle with death. And while they may score some victories they are the victories of people fighting a valiant, noble, under-appreciated rearguard action against an invincible enemy.

In the end death wins. In the end we end.

If you read John’s gospel narrative of Jesus’ life you see Jesus’ compassion when he encounters bereavement. The shortest verse in the Bible is an understatement of biblical proportions when Jesus was confronted with the death of a friend and his friend’s grieving family: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).

Two verses earlier we read, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” This is rather a sanitised translation. You could equally translate the last section as “he was inwardly angry and became enraged.” It’s a natural reaction: sometimes we respond to death’s intrusion into our lives with anger (especially if it is unexpected or ‘too soon’).

But it seems that Jesus’ anger was not just at the fact that his friend, Lazarus, had died. It was also that death itself had encroached onto the scene. Perhaps for him it was a reminder that he was to do battle with death himself in the not-to-distant future. He himself wept and sweated blood as he wrestled with his impending execution. And when he was crucified and died, it seemed that death had kept its morbid 100% record.

It was a Friday.

But Sunday was coming.

The reason that the cross (a hideous symbol of cruelty, bullying, humiliation, torture and death) is the emblem for Christians is that we know that it represents the moment when everything changed. The Good News of Jesus is that he really did defeat death. He smashed the Ultimate Statistic (1 out of 1 people die). His resurrection is a beacon of hope in the dark shadow of death. It is a defiant shout that this need not be the end.

This ‘song’ was sung in early churches:

 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’

And Paul, quoting it when he wrote to his first letter to the church in Corinth (Chapter 15) expands on that theme:

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Death still hurts. Bereavement is still painful. We should still fight the rearguard action with all that is in us. But death is defeated. Because Jesus is alive there is hope. Many times when I visited believers who knew they were in their last days on earth they spoke (with shining eyes) of their faith that although death was to be feared it was not the end. They looked forward to what lay beyond – an eternity in God’s presence. Many said to me, “I’m ready.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

real puppets

There are some things that shouldn’t work. Today I was listening to the Radio 2 Breakfast Show when Elmo came on. For the few of you who don’t know who Elmo is, he is a small red fluffy muppet from Sesame Street who speaks in the third person. Embed from Getty Images

And Elmo was on the radio. It should not have worked. Elmo is predominantly a visual experience and radio is audio-only. But because he has a distinctive voice and because the characterisation is so strong (and funny) it did work. It brought a smile to my face and I reckon that was replicated across the country. And it seems that Elmo was there in full character, not just his voice, which made it all the more real.

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Stew after having cut a Head Teacher’s tie in half, and failed to restore it

I don’t know what it is about puppets but they seem to have universal appeal, especially if they have a character to which people can relate. I have a puppet friend, Stew the Rabbit, who helped me in school assemblies and also helps me in magic tricks. (He is going to be taking part in the show I am doing on 23rd May (shameless plug) carrying out his most dangerous illusion to date.) There is something about his character that children and adults both love. In fact he was so popular in one school I used to visit that when the Head Teacher greeted me on arrival the first thing that was said was, “Is Stew here?” and only then, “Nice to see you Nick”! (They gave Stew an enormous gift-wrapped carrot when we moved away).

Sometimes clever children (never adults) will say, “He’s just a puppet.” My response is, “Yes, but he’s a real puppet.” That flummoxes them because it is nonsensical and yet seems to be a fair response to their observation. Stew may not work on radio as he only whispers in my ear so I can repeat it to the audience. But even though (speak it quietly) he is a puppet he is able to communicate with people of all ages and they remember it because it was from a puppet and they warmed to him.

“Where’s this reflection going?” I hear you thinking. And I was not sure when I started writing. I guess I was so captivated by Elmo on the radio that I wanted to create a bloggage about it. And I think that’s my point. There are some things we see, some experiences we have, some people we meet who are so captivating that we have to tell other people about what happened.

I find the same experience when I read the gospels and re-discover Jesus of Nazareth. It should not have worked. He was the uneducated, illegitimate son of the local odd job man (aka carpenter) from a backwater town in a Roman-occupied territory. He was a complete nobody for the first 30 years of his life, probably the butt of local jokes. Yet when he started a public ministry crowds flocked to him, astonishing things happened, he gave teaching of a quality and profundity that belied his impoverished background, and he caused such a stir that he became a threat to the powers that be… so much that they conspired to have him executed.

That would be remarkable enough a life for a Hollywood blockbuster. But he claimed to be more than a good teacher, and proved it by his resurrection. His few frightened followers were transformed by their encounters with him after his resurrection into fervent witnesses – and now are numbered in the billions.

It shouldn’t have worked, but it’s even more amazing than Elmo on the radio! Have you met him yet?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

tales of the unexpected

surpriseIt’s sometimes the unexpected things that make the biggest impact on us: the critical comment that came out of the blue; an accident; bad news that shocks us…

I think it is partly because we have to react ‘in the moment’. We have not had an opportunity to prepare ourselves, to think about our reaction, or to brace for impact. We respond with instinct and adrenaline and they are not always the best of partners because they don’t last and afterwards we can feel physically and emotionally shaky because we did not respond in the way that, had we been prepared for it, we would have like to.

Perhaps we snapped back or were rude. Perhaps we got angry at someone else for the accident (even if it was our fault). Perhaps we took the bad news badly and lashed out. I hasten to add that any similarity between scenarios I have sketched above and actual events is purely unintentional and unexpected.

I hope and pray that I might respond with grace, serenity, wisdom and gentleness in those circumstances. I know that this is not always the case. Over-reacting can sometimes do as much damage as the initial unexpected event and we need to ask for forgiveness and set things right if we have not responded in the right way.

But tales of the unexpected aren’t always bad. Following the recent announcement of my new calling I have had some very kind and generous comments from people. I have also had some unexpected cards and letters from unexpected people that have blessed me no end because of the time and thoughtfulness that lay behind the buying and writing and sending. They blessed me no end.

There are those moments when someone tells you that they really appreciate something you have done – something which you didn’t really think meant that much.

There are times when something good happens to you that you might even have hoped for but which you never imagined would happen in reality.

There are unexpected, unsolicited hugs.

There are times when I read parts of the Bible and the words are apposite for me at that moment and it makes me smile.

There are so many ways in which we are blessed by the unexpected. And because they are unexpected, unsolicited, unplanned, we have not been able to prepare for them or work out how to respond. For that reason I think they sometimes make a bigger impact on us because of that.

If you want the ultimate in unexpected positive outcomes look at the reactions of Jesus’ friends when he met them after his resurrection! Words like ‘overjoyed’, ‘astonished’, ‘amazed’ and so on don’t really begin to do justice to that experience.

Because we are familiar with it we can sometimes downplay Jesus’ resurrection (heaven forbid!). Why not re-read one of the narratives and put yourself in the sandals of his friends who had seen him crucified, thought it was the end of the film and weren’t expecting there to be a sequel? How do you feel?

And perhaps today you can bless someone with an unexpected positive moment. You may find that it makes a bigger impact on them than you expected. And in doing so you may well find that God has used you too!

Be blessed, be a blessing

SYLOFTRK*

empty tombOn Easter Sunday evening we going to hold a service that we’re calling “Songs of Resurrection”. It is a sort of Easter Carol Service, where we will sing some of the great hymns and songs of Resurrection and retell the Easter Resurrection narratives to celebrate the fact of Jesus’ resurrection.

*I did toy with the idea of calling the service “Sing Your Lungs out for the Risen King” but decided that ‘Songs of Resurrection’ was a slightly less in your face name.

There are 2 main reasons to do this: one is that inevitably at Easter we will not be able to sing all of the amazing Easter songs and hymns in one service and this will give us an opportunity to sing and celebrate some more. The second is that there is something significant and powerful about retelling the narrative as a whole. Just as at Christmas we are familiar with the story and yet retell it each year to refresh and remind ourselves about it so it will be good to take a similar opportunity at Easter.

I wish I’d come up with this idea a lot sooner so that I could have given our musicians and singers more time to prepare. But I’m sure we will still make a joyful noise and it will lift our spirits.

At Easter I find it very difficult sometimes not to rush to the resurrection because it is such a spectacular event. In my first church I was asked to lead the service at the end of the Good Friday March of Witness. It was a big event with several hundred people gathered in the Market Square and I had arranged for young people from different churches to participate. Because it was such a public event I felt that I could not leave Jesus buried in the grave but we had to finish on a resurrection hymn so that the general public could hear that Good Friday was not the end.

I was fascinated by how many people complained about this. ‘This was Good Friday, Easter Sunday has no business being mentioned’ seems to be the general thrust of the complaints. Every single complaint was from a regular church goer.

Without Good Friday Easter Sunday makes no sense. Without Good Friday God’s gracious act of reconciliation is impossible. It is important that we pause and reflect on that and on the astonishing sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. But, a little like re-watching a favourite film that I have seen many times before, I know the ending and cannot help viewing Good Friday through the lens of the Resurrection. We know how it ends, or rather how it really begins.

Without Easter Sunday we follow a dead martyr. Without Easter Sunday death is not defeated. Without Easter Sunday Jesus was a liar and a fraud.

But Jesus is alive and that makes all the difference.

if you are in the vicinity of our church at six thirty on Easter Sunday evening you would be very welcome to join us for the ‘Songs of Resurrection’. Whether or not you are able to be with us, however, don’t neglect to reflect on the one that resurrects!

Be blessed, be a blessing

the certainty principle

At the moment I am contemplating Sunday evening’s sermon on the first half of Acts 4.

I am not certain this shirt was a good idea
I am not certain this shirt was a good idea

One of the things that strikes me as amazing is that when the authorities had the apostles in front of them they did not attempt to argue about or disprove Jesus’ resurrection. It seems they knew that the evidence was irrefutable.

So why, if the evidence was irrefutable, didn’t they believe it? One of the reasons is that it did not fit into their theological framework. We know that many of them were Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection. Because they did not believe in resurrection it could not have happened, even though the evidence all pointed in that direction.

Do we ever find ourselves in the same position – denying what God is doing because it does not fit with our existing theological framework? ‘Of course not’ is my hasty response. But if I take the time to consider prayerfully I need to be less certain.

Only a few centuries ago many Christians were certain that slavery was God’s will. Only a few decades ago many Christians were certain that women should not be ordained. What other ‘certainties’ does God need to address in us?

The certainty I live my life upon is Jesus’ death and resurrection. The further I move away from that central truth, from his teaching and life, the more I end up thinking about things from my own perspective rather than his and the less certain I should be.

Be blessed, be a blessing

clean your glasses

(You can’t be optimistic through a misty optic!)

Recently I have been working through a process of analysing my strengths and weaknesses and (with the help of the lovely lady called Tracy) have been analysing my preferences – my personal style, how interact with others, and how I make decisions. This has been incredibly beneficial. As well as helping me to understand myself better, and why I think all react in certain ways, it is also helped me realise how people respond to me. I won’t go into all of the details, but one of the helpful reflections is in developing strategies for recognising and responding to those whose way of looking at life is different to my own.

I hope that this will help me as an individual, as a husband and father, as a team member, and as a Minister. I will be trying to work through these findings and may occasionally news about them on this blog. I hope that that will not be too self-indulgent but may help you understand me better, and perhaps even understand yourself a little better too. So, what’s today’s subject?

Apparently I am a ‘glass half full’ sort of person, although that optimism is occasionally misplaced. (It has been pointed out that the glass is always full – it’s just that sometimes it is more full of air than fluid). Except when I’m feeling in a grotty mood (often because I’m tired), I do think that I am a relatively optimistic person. I am not prone to Eeyore moments. I tend to look at life positively and consider possibilities rather than focusing on difficulties and problems. I think to this might be linked to my love of laughter and humour, which I appreciate can come across sometimes as flippancy (sorry if that’s the case for you). I wonder how much this is my natural personality and how much comes from my Christian faith.

In the light of the facts of Jesus’ resurrection I find it difficult to be pessimistic about life. The empty tomb, the testimony of the guards, the transformation of the disciples, the statements by those who met Jesus after his resurrection, the rapid spread of the early church led by eyewitnesses, and my own experiences of Jesus’ presence in my own life all points towards an ultimately optimistic future.

I know that for some people life at the moment might be quite dark and that for others Eeyore might be their patron saint, but that does not alter the facts of my faith. I hope and pray that my optimism does not make you feel uncomfortable or awkward but instead might provide hope and the expectation of a brighter future. If you find me to be over enthusiastic please gently let me know. At the same time, however, please feel free to borrow some of my optimism if yours is lacking.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Grandpa was celebrating his 100th birthday and everybody complimented him on how athletic and well-preserved he appeared. “Folks,” he said to the assembled throng, “I will tell you the secret of my success. I have spent a considerable amount of time in the open air everyday day for some 75 years now.”

The celebrants were impressed and asked how he managed to keep up his rigorous fitness regime.

“Well, you see my wife and I were married 75 years ago. On our wedding night, we made a solemn pledge. Whenever we had a fight, the one who was proved wrong would go outside and take a walk.”