who you are and how you are makes a difference

A friend recently shared how they had struggled in a previous job and had wondered what the purpose was for them being there until, on their last day, a colleague said that they felt God had put them there for her.

Not long after that I had the opportunity to accompany that friend to wait for an appointment very near where they used to work. Every so often someone who had worked near my friend would come past, see them, and come over and speak with them in such positive ways – clearly delighted to see my friend again.

I observed to them that they had made a much bigger impact on the people around them than they realised, simply by being who they are!

It reminded me of a lovely children’s book: ‘Jesus’ Day Off’ by Nicholas Allan (he also wrote ‘The Queen’s Knickers’ and ‘Jesus’ Christmas Party’ – you can see more about it here). In that book he imagines that Jesus was worn out from helping people and his friends persuaded him to take the day off. But at the end of his day off Jesus felt that it had been a day wasted until it was pointed out that simply by being who he was he had made a difference to the people around him.

As a follower of Jesus it comes back to what he said about us being salt and light in our communities. We can enhance flavour, we can preserve, we can brighten and illuminate. Who you are and how you are makes a difference to the people around us: the question is whether that is a positive or negative difference. Both my friend’s experience and ‘Jesus’ Day Off’ feel like modern-day parables that ask me the question – are people around me influenced positively simply by me being me with them?  

Be blessed, be a blessing

recycled blessings

1295032_torn_paper_6

In order to try to save trees and do a little bit towards helping the environment I try to do a couple of things: I try to print double-sided (saving paper) and I try to re-use bits of paper on which I have only printed on one side – using them as scrap paper. I started the double-sided printing a while ago, but I had started the reusing single side-printed paper as scrap a while before I found out how to make my printer print on both sides, which meant that I have had a modest stock of single-sided paper to use as scrap.

However over the weekend I reached for a piece of scrap paper and found that I had more-or-less exhausted my stock of scrap paper. It wasn’t so much that I had used it more frequently as that my double-sided printing had reduced the amount of paper available for scrap. I hadn’t expected that side-effect. In the end I had to use a pristine piece of paper to write on. It felt wrong (recycling-wise), and at the same time there was something lovely about writing on a clean piece of paper with a nice fountain pen. (Yes I am that sad).

So often there are unexpected consequences to our well-intended actions. You stop your car to let someone pull out in front of you and someone behind you gets angry that their journey is delayed. You make a phone call on your mobile while on the train to let someone know you are thinking of them in a time of difficulty and someone else on the train is upset that they have to listen to one side of your conversation. You walk to the shops rather than driving in order to keep fit and reduce pollution but the journey takes longer than anticipated and you miss an important phone call at home. You perform a magic trick on stage to entertain an audience and make a 4 year-old girl cry because her granny was the one sprayed with silly string at the end*. You get the idea.

The unintended and unexpected consequences do not make our original actions wrong. They do not mean that we should not have done those things (except perhaps not spraying granny with silly string). But we need to remember that we do not exist inside a bubble, we live in a society with lots of other people. Perhaps we should think more widely about our impact on other people: who else is impacted by our actions?

And while we are contemplating that are there ways in which we can expand the positive scope of our actions? That’s one of the questions that led to the establishing of the Fairtrade Foundation to enable people to buy goods that will more directly benefit the producers as well as the vendor and purchaser. Another way, I think, is by seeking to reciprocate and pass on the positive impact when we are the beneficiary. It blesses me no end if, after I have let a car pull out in front of me in a queue of traffic, the person I let pull out does the same for someone else further along the road.

Can you imagine the impact on our society if we all acted in that way, rather than in self-centred and selfish ways? Not just letting people pull out in front of us, but everyone seeking to bless others. In the Bible there are lots of ways in which we can do that for one another. These are some I have identified

one another image

I wonder whether this is part of what the writer intended in the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 10 (my emphasis):

23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Is this also part of what Jesus meant by us being salt and light in our communities – adding savour and enhancing the brightness so that people “may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”? (Matthew 5:16)

I’m not sure how all of this will help my scrap paper problem (except to say that I don’t need donations!) but in the grand scheme of things I don’t think that is as important.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Yes, to my shame, I really did that!

un-seizing the brakes

Imagine that you have an Aston Martin DB5 car – the James Bond Goldfinger one with the ejector seat. (I enjoy imagining that). It looks great, it sounds great, it feels great. But there is a problem: the brakes are virtually seized and the car will hardly move. Wouldn’t you get the brakes sorted?

aston-martin-db5

In the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais (22 miles from UK) there are 387 unaccompanied children who are legally entitled to come to the UK. Under the Dublin Agreement on Refugees unaccompanied refugee children who have relatives living in the UK are entitled to be brought to the UK to have their Asylum application assessed here. Under the ‘Dubs Amendment’ to the Immigration Act 2016 unaccompanied children who were in Europe prior to 20th March 2016 are to be allowed into the UK.

It looks great, it sounds great, it feels great. But there is a problem. The brakes are virtually seized and the car will hardly move. Until recently hardly any were brought across. Now 4 a week are being brought across- at that rate it will take almost 2 years for all of these young people (who have the right to be here) to get here! While they are waiting these children are at the mercy of traffickers and in a very vulnerable situation. There is no child protection for them: if the legal route for them to get to the UK does not move the likelihood is that they will try desperate illegal routes.

Photo 26-08-2016, 10 42 58
The 4 Baptists in the delegation (right to left): Revds Penny Marsh, Me, Phil Warburton and Dan Pratt

Because of this I joined a delegation of 20 faith leaders (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) who went to Calais on Friday morning to deliver lists of those 387 eligible children to the French authorities (where the brakes are virtually seized). It was organised by Citizens UK. The aim was first of all to get these names officially received by relevant French authorities; secondly to get the problem highlighted we had Radio 4 journalist Trevor Barnes with us and I believe it will also be in a national newspaper. The news was embargoed until today (hence the bloggage today) but you can listen to the item here on the BBC Sunday programme podcast. (It’s about 25 minutes in). Our purpose was to highlight that these children exist so that the authorities could not deny the problem.

The official that my part of the delegation visited did not recognise that the system’s brakes were seized. He would not admit that there was a problem. He did receive the letter and list we wanted to give him and said he would look at them. He also tried hard to say that it was not his problem and that he could not change policy. He did admit that there were people working for him who were working on this problem but they were in Paris (allegedly). In my view, as a Civil Servant, he could not publicly say that there was a problem because then he would have to do something about it. It was evident that the brakes were not going to receive much attention there.

Some of the delegations did receive more positive responses and the list has now been officially received. There is a multi-disciplinary meeting in Calais next week and we hope that they will have to do something about this. I am sure that the British authorities can do a lot more to work on releasing the brakes for these young people who have a legal entitlement to be here.

If you are a person who prays please will you pray for the success of this campaign? If you are a person of action please will you consider putting pressure on your MP and the Government to do something about this?

Let’s work together to un-seize the brakes and get this great looking, great sounding, great feeling car moving.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

signet rings*

 

Last Sunday I had the unusual experience of hearing a sermon preached from Haggai. BIG points to any of you who have ever preached from Haggai, bonus points if you can find it without having to rummage through the Minor Prophets!

It’s a fascinating little book that dovetails particularly with Ezra and the rebuilding work following the return from Exile under Nehemiah. The preacher based his sermon on two phrases in Chapter 2 verse 4: “Be strong… and work. For I am with you.” There’s a lot in that alone, but later on I read the whole of the book and was fascinated by God’s promise to Zerubbabel (governor of Judah) that God “will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you.” (Haggai 2:23) That’s an unusual phrase, isn’t it?

I wonder how Zerubbabel felt when Haggai delivered those words to him from God. Was he hoping for something a bit more dynamic, a bit more impressive or a bit more visible? I turned to my three commentaries on Haggai (yes, three! (although they are all collections of Minor Prophets)) and discovered that Zerubbabel was not only the bounciest man in the Bible but was a grandson of King Jehoiachin, so therefore was part of the royal line of David. In Jeremiah 22:24 God had described Jehoiachin as being like his signet ring that he was going to take off and fling away (into Babylon) because of his sin. Now God is ready to put his signet ring back on, having retrieved it from down the back of the sofa of the Exile. To take the language of Habbakuk, in his wrath God had remembered mercy. And the line of David could continue through to Jesus.

A signet ring in those days was not a mere piece of jewellery. It signified the King. (Pharaoh put his signet ring on Joseph’s finger to give him his authority, for example). It was as important as a crown and was used to seal important documents to prove that the King endorsed them. God calls Zerubbabel his ‘Servant’ not ‘Governor’ in this prophecy, which is a messianic description too. However we don’t hear much more about Zerubbabel after this moment, except that he appears in Jesus’ family tree (Luke 3:27).

sealedSo what do we make of all this? Is it just interesting historical analysis? Is it merely fascinating Biblical cross-referencing? I think it’s so much more than that:

  • it’s a reaffirmation that God is still King of kings (which is why he wanted them to get on and finish the Temple rebuilding (see earlier in Haggai)) even though his kings had let him down;
  • it’s a reminder that God is the thread of continuity in history (despite the bleak present God will still be King in the future);
  • and it’s a reminder that God works through people (including political leaders). He spoke through Haggai and he planned to restore the monarchy through Zerubbabel (ensuring Jesus’ royal lineage). As God’s signet ring Zerubbabel would be God’s seal of endorsement on his activity. He would be his proxy.

These thoughts spoke to me in our current circumstances in the UK – where there is turmoil and a need for a reconstruction of society. We need to ensure that God’s visible presence (which is what the Temple was, and we now are) stands strong and proclaims that he is still King of kings. And we should remember that God fulfils his purposes through people – those in low positions and those in authority too. He longs for us all to be his servants and to use us to be part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer that “Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Perhaps we might even dare to consider that as co-heirs with Christ we too are signet rings – signs of God’s rule and authority, and his proxy in his world.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*this was first sent out as a ‘thought for the week’ sent to Baptist Ministers in the Eastern Baptist Association

a rANT against violence 

Over recent weeks and months there seems to have been an escalation in hatred, violence and bloodshed across the world. It may just be a perception-thing, and the situation may not be worse than what I hesitate to call ‘normal’, but there have been so many atrocities. How do you feel about it? I have several different responses.

One thing is that I feel outrage and anger at the violence, bloodshed and death. This is not how the world is meant to be. Terror, intimidation, threats, abuse and racist attitudes are hideous distortions of humanity as it could be and it makes me angry that so often the victims are those who are ‘innocent’ and just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Another response (usually after I have calmed down a bit) is deep sorrow for the victims, their families, the communities and the countries that have been affected. Some are afforded the opportunity to grieve and mourn and lament, others simply recoil from what has happened before being affected by yet another incident. This is deeply saddening.

A third response is a sense of helplessness. What can I do in my comfortable, relatively safe cocooned lifestyle where despite the emotions I have expressed above I am insulated from the true horror of what has happened by viewing it on a screen or hearing it on a radio? Will anything I do make any difference?

My personal approach to each of these is also threefold as a follower of Jesus (who responded to darkness with deep emotions, prayer, action and solidarity with victims):

First I try to pray. Sometimes I can articulate my thoughts and at other times they are simply emotions that I offer to God. Sometimes they are angry prayers, sometimes sorrowful, sometimes bewildered. Sometimes they are prayers for someone to do something, sometimes they are laments of helplessness. But I find that in addition to turning to God for help there is a degree of spiritual and emotional catharsis in praying that enables me to express my thoughts and emotions honestly.

Second I try to see whether there is someone ‘on the ground’ whom I can support. Are there agencies, charities, organisations or simply people with whom I have contact that I can support financially; can I campaign on their behalf by petitioning Governments; or are there ways in which giving financially will make a difference? It’s part of being open to God asking me to be part of the answer to my own prayers (and the prayers of others).

Thirdly I can get involved locally. Because if everyone around this planet took action locally then we can make a significant difference. So I try to look for acts of kindness I can do for others. I try to look for ways I can express God’s shalom (peace and wholeness) to others. I try to find ways to be Love in my community. Even posting something on social media is a positive act. And, because of my role, I can also share great examples of how followers of Jesus (and others) are responding positively and encourage others to do the same.

For example (and I have shared this around a bit) Westcliff Baptist Church in Southend have been taking bunches of flowers to people in businesses in their community who may be subject to abusive words or behaviour. Here are three stories of what has happened:

‘The first business I visited was a café run by a lady from Germany. She had received some online abuse online after the referendum. She and a Polish waitress were delighted to receive the flowers. As we handed them over, a customer who had heard our conversation said “that has made my day – that you should do this”.’

‘Further down the road, an elderly couple from our church visited a Polish deli. The owner was a little slow to understand why this couple were giving him flowers. When they were able to explain, he broke down in tears and repeatedly hugged them, thanking them for thinking of him. He wouldn’t let them leave the shop without a complimentary box of chocolates!’

‘An Italian waiter who received some flowers declared that he would put them on a table in the centre of the restaurant so that everyone who dined there could see the positive spirit in the community.’

Along with the flowers the church has given out cards (a copy is attached) that say, “With love from friends at Westcliff Baptist Church after the EU Referendum vote. We wanted to say you are welcome here and your contribution to our community is very much appreciated.” It has contact details for the Minister.

Churches in Fakenham are doing something similar in the Market on Thursdays

Earls Hall Baptist Church have invited any and all Christians to come together for a time of prayer for our land/nation/country following the referendum on Sunday evening from 6.30pm.

Churches in Leigh on Sea are putting up signs expressing that all are welcome in the churches, especially those from overseas.

Churches in Cambridgeshire are being offered a template for postcards they can print out “for members to use in personal low-key acts of welcome and blessing to those in minority communities who may be feeling threatened by the recent upsurge in acts of antagonism and hatred.”

 

ant

We may not think that the small things we do make much difference but to the people on the receiving end they make all the difference. And if we all do this, the hatred in the world starts to be countered and overcome by a revolution of Love: one ant on its own cannot do much, but a swarm of ants working together can transform a landscape!

Be blessed, be a blessing

a reflective response to the referendum result

make a dealI have been trying to work out in my mind how to respond to the EU Referendum result. I want to offer some disparate thoughts.

To those who voted ‘Remain’: You did not lose. We made a decision. Right now you may feel as if you have lost, I understand that. (I voted ‘Remain’ too). From the comments I have read and heard it sounds like many of us feel like the Israelite exiles in the Old Testament who had been taken against their will to a new land where they did not want to be. I think we have two choices in that context:

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?

or

Jeremiah 29

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

We can either sit down, moaning, complaining, weeping and writing Boney M songs, or we can get on with it, be activists, make a positive difference, work for peace and prosperity and pray for the new place in which we find ourselves. If you want to do the latter, I heartily recommend Citizens UK as an organisation through which we can do this. But if not them then get involved somehow, make a difference.

To those who voted ‘Leave’: You did not win. We made a decision. I did not vote the same way that you did. A lot of positive possibilities were offered to us about a future outside the EU – possibilities that inspired a majority of those who voted to choose to leave. We all now need to work together for the benefit of all to try to make positive change a reality. You need those who voted ‘Remain’ to make this happen. So don’t alienate us.

These words from Philippians 4 were written in the context of Paul pleading for two people who were in violent disagreement to work out their differences:

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

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.

Bringing the two themes together I am reminded that Jesus taught people to pray that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done on earth in the same way as it is in heaven. But praying is not merely words of hope or aspiration. It is also an attitude that motivates action, it is the fuel that powers God-inspired change. Let’s pray – yes, yes, yes, but let’s act in response to, and because of, those prayers. Let’s allow ourselves to be changed by those prayers so that we are acting in accordance with what God wants – the peace and prosperity of the world in which we now find ourselves.

The country had a choice on 23rd June 2016. We now have another one: we can either focus on our difference or make a difference.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

ready salted

Salt SpoonMy Bible reading today  was from Matthew 5:13-20, part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was talking to the crowd about being salt and light – making a difference for him in our communities. Sometimes I am tempted to think that this difference has to be a big thing. Then I read this today:

When Desmond Tutu was a boy, he saw a white priest doff his hat to his mother, who was a black domestic cleaner. That small courtesy changed his life.

Little things can make a big difference. To whom will you doff your hat today (literally or metaphorically)? What small thing does God want you to do that will put some savour in someone else’s life or shine some light into their darkness?

Be blessed, be a blessing