elasticated

So I was lying in the dentist’s chair, looking at the photo on the ceiling (it’s of someone in a powered parachute flying over the sea next to some cliffs) and trying not to pay too much attention to what the dentist was doing. She was working on the scaffolding that I have attached to my teeth in order to try to get them to go back to the state of order in which God intended them to live in my mouth (rather than the random order they were working towards). This is not (I add defensively) because of personal vanity but because in their disorganised state some of my teeth were cutting into my tongue).

I sensed the dentist was nearing the end of the process for that day and started to relax.

And that’s when it happened.

pile-of-elastics.jpg
They’re not as big as this!

Before I knew it she had looped two elastic bands over my mouth scaffolding: linking the upper teeth to the lower ones. I was completely unprepared for it as she had not warned me that this would be part of the process of giving me a smile that looked normal.

I really dislike them. No, I mean really dislike them. They make my jaw muscles ache because every time I open my mouth the elastic bands are under tension and are pulling my jaws back together. They inhibit my speech, making it more difficult for me to pronounce certain words. They rub against my cheek, meaning that talking is sometimes painful. They look horrible. And when, occasionally, one of them snaps inside my mouth it’s like a small bee has stung the inside of my cheek!

For a while I stopped wearing them during the day and only wore them at night. But the next time I saw my dentist she told me that this was not a good idea. The elastic bands are supposed to be easing some of my teeth downwards so that they are the right length. And if I don’t have them on for most of the time the teeth settle back into their old ways during the time when they are not under tension.

So, VERY reluctantly, I have been wearing the elastic bands.

At this point I hope that, at the very least, you might be feeling a tiny amount of sympathy for me, dear bloggist. However I suspect some of you are thinking, “Oh, boohoo you crybaby. Pull yourself together you wuss, there are people enduring far more painful and life-threatening experiences than you are with your teeth.”

And I would have a lot of sympathy for that view. I know I am being pathetic. I know that I am not being rational about this. I know that this is temporary. I know that it’s for my benefit in the long term. I know that in the grand scale of things this is tiny.

I know all of that.

But I still really resent having the elastic bands on my teeth.

Very few people actually like the discipline of something that is difficult, painful or unwelcome even if we know that it will have long term benefits:

A student who struggles with a particular subject may well resent extra lessons that will help them.

A person riding a bicycle up a steep hill may labour with the effort it takes even though they need to get to the top and the exercise will be doing them some good.

Many people resent paying taxes even though we know that they pay for many of the services upon which we rely and from which we benefit (health, transport, defence, and so on).

And for some reason many followers of Jesus seem to put spending time reading their Bibles and praying in the same category. Or if we don’t consciously do so we behave as if we do. We can struggle, we can labour, we can perhaps even resent it. Even though we know that these things will help us to grow closer to God, help us deepen our relationship with Jesus and enable us to experience his Spirit more easily we don’t do them. A survey in 2012 in USA found that only 19% of churchgoers read the Bible every day. Another survey in 2014 found that only 68% of American Christians pray every day. I suspect that these figures will be much lower in the UK.

For some reason we see these things as disciplines for Christians to struggle with not privileges for disciples. We see them as a chore! But discipline and disciple have the same root! The student who perseveres with extra study will gain the benefit of a better understanding. The cyclist we perseveres with riding to the top of the hill will get to their destination and be fitter. The taxpayer improves their society and gains the benefit of paying their taxes when they visit the doctor, drive their car and live in a free country.

The follower of Jesus who spends quality time in prayer and reading their Bible will find that their understanding of God will increase, their awareness of his presence will be enhanced and their walk with him will get easier. There are lots of things that can help you – apps for your phone, websites, books, people… even blogs!

If you doubt me why not try it and prove me wrong!

And at least they won’t twang back and hurt you.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

that moment when your computer needs to update and you need to use it… urgently

I usually prepare my sermons in the first half of a week. That gives me space to reflect on it and adjust things. I usually wait until the Sunday morning to do any final adjustments before saving it as a PDF and sending it to my tablet computer from which I like to preach. This is what works for me.

Yesterday morning I switched my computer on just before 8am and gone to get a cup of coffee. When I got back to my computer I was faced with a message that told me that Windows 10 was installing new updates and that it may take a while.

old-man-window
Sometimes you have to wait for ages for your windows to update

Oh.

I needed to be on my way soon after 9.30am.

I did research options to see if I could intervene and stop the process but none of them seemed safe enough to attempt if I wanted to be certain of accessing my computer afterwards.

I then prayed. I prayed that the update might finish in time for me to access the computer and get hold of the sermon, or that at the least I might be able to remember enough to preach something close to what I had been working on earlier in the week.

I thought of an update(!) to an old joke that I could tell at the start of my sermon: A preacher’s computer decided to update itself on the Sunday morning so he couldn’t access his sermon. He had to go to the church without his notes. As he stood up to preach he explained the situation to his congregation and finished with these words, “… so today I will just have to rely on the Holy Spirit for my sermon. Next week I hope to do better.”

I posted something on social media via my phone so I could get some sympathy (with hashtags in case Microsoft monitors them) and perhaps some extra prayers. Other Ministers expressed that they were having similar problems – solidarity in frustration.

And I looked again at the passage from which I was preaching and tried to recall what I thought I was going to say.

By 9am I was entirely ready to leave: the car was packed, the satnav knew where to direct me, and I was clean and tidy. But my computer had only reached about 75%.

By 9.30am we were at 96%. But the final 4% seemed to be taking ages.

At 9.38am the computer announced that it had finished installing the updates. I smiled with relief and waited for it to boot up.

Except that the booting up was taking much longer than normal, presumably because it was still updating itself.

I managed finally to get into the computer and print off the sermon (on paper, not high tech tabletty stuff) and leave the house by 9.45am. I got to the church safely and on time and all went well from there…

This morning I tried to find out if there were settings I could change to ensure that this didn’t happen again. I couldn’t find a ‘ask my permission before installing updates’ setting. Instead there was a setting in which I declare my normal working hours within which Windows should not install updates. It had been set to 8am – 5pm. The updating process had happened just before 8am, but it took well over an hour and a half that took it into my declared working time. I have now adjusted that setting so that my declared working hours start earlier and finish later (at least as far as my computer is concerned).

So I offer a few reflections:

Did God speed up the updating process? I don’t think so. But he gave me the patience and serenity to cope in what was a very frustrating time. That often seems to be how he answers prayer – changing me rather than the circumstances.

Will I change the way that I work? Probably. I will transfer the sermon to my tablet earlier in the week so I have a back up I can use, but still do my final preparation on a Sunday morning and if necessary send a newer version to the tablet at that stage. Do we adapt ourselves to others or expect them to adapt to us?

What else have I learnt?

  • That God is more reliable than the other things I rely on to fulfil the calling he has placed on my life and I need to rely on him more and them less.
  • That it’s helpful having some good friends who offer good advice, prayers and (if nothing else) make me smile. I need to be ready to do the same for them.
  • The computer programmers who designed the software don’t appear to have thought through the implications of not asking us whether it is convenient to update at that particular time. How often do I pause to think through any unintended implications of my actions that may inconvenience others, even when they seem like a good idea?
  • It would have been helpful if a pop-up message had told me that they weren’t going to ask my permission to update in future so I knew what to do about that. How often does my failure to communicate fully with others cause them upset?

Be blessed, be a blessing

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.

being vigilant

Last Thursday evening there was a superb prayer vigil at Chelmsford Cathedral organised by a team led by Hannah Bucke, the Churches Together in Essex and East London Ecumenical Officer (when she wears name badges they have to be extra long). It was a well-thought out, brilliantly delivered opportunity to reflect prayerfully on some of the key issues around the EU Referendum (which is on Thursday, in case you hadn’t realised).

Prayer stations were arranged around the Cathedral where we considered issues relating to:

Peace and International Relations,

Sovereignty,

Trade and the Single Market,

Borders,

Environment, and

Agriculture and Food.

In addition, given the shocking news of the murder of Jo Cox, MP, there was also a space for prayers for her family and the opportunity to light a candle.

I was so grateful to the team that put it all together, and for the thoughtful, non-partisan way in which the issues were presented and the helpful references to Bible passages that were relevant to the issues as well.

To give you an idea of the excellence of the event, and perhaps to help you in your praying about how to vote, this is the prayer card we were given:

Scan_20160618

I have already voted (postally) as I am away on Thursday this week, but my thinking, praying and deciding was based on the values I wrote about back in April The Hokey Cokey Referendum

Be blessed, be a blessing

three rings

old phone 2It used to be ‘three rings’. ‘Ring ring, ring ring, ring ring’.

In the dim and distant past, before mobile phones were a commonplace part of our experience, when people were travelling somewhere and needed to let someone else know that they had arrived safely they would give ‘three rings’. They would dial (probably actually on a rotary dial, young people) the number, let it ring three times and then ring off.

It meant that the call didn’t cost anything, no lengthy phone conversation was needed, and the person at the other end would know that their friend / loved one had arrived safely at their destination.

There were a few problems. One was that sometimes, when you listened at the other end, it would start with a ‘half ring’ – ‘ring’ before going into full ‘ring ring’ rings. Did that first half ring count as a proper ring? If it did, then you should hang up after another two rings, but would the person at the other end know that it counted? If you went for another ‘ring ring’ so there were three of them, the person at the other end might think it was four rings so it wasn’t you and pick up the phone, negating the reason for doing three rings.

And, when you think about it, it was technically six rings (or five), not three.

And of course there were also the times when the person you were ringing forgot to wait for three rings and picked up the phone anyway.

A seemingly simple process was fraught with complexity!

Today all we have to do is send a text message to another mobile phone, or an instant message on social media.

But we still have to remember to send a message. The technology may be better but, a bit like with my satnav (see Monday) the weakest part is the human part.

Prayer is an instantaneous and low-cost way of communicating with God. You don’t need special words, you don’t need to be in a special place, you don’t even need to dial. All you have to do is remember to pray. God’s there, listening and waiting. However the weakest part is still the human part isn’t it?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

doubt that is bigger than ants

antA while back I remember reading a little phrase that stuck with me because it needed to be mulled and pondered and reflected on: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Apparently it was Frederick Buechner who wrote that in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.

I found it amusing, and then a little bit provocative. Does doubt really keep faith alive and moving? Do we actually need doubt to help keep our faith vibrant? And I am not just talking about Christian faith here, but whatever or whoever it is in we put our faith. You see, if we doubt then we question and if we question then we explore and if we explore then we find new vistas, new ways of thinking about what we believe, new understanding, and perhaps even new / renewed faith. If we have no doubts we have no need to question. I think that is what Buechner is trying to tell us.

However I don’t think that ‘ants in the pants’ is enough. That suggests a sort of irritant, something that makes you uncomfortable, something that makes you squirm. Doubt can be like that, but big doubt, real doubt, foundation-shaking doubt can be dark, all-embracing and menacing. It can be the monster under the bed ready to torment and keep you awake. It can be a highly corrosive acid that eats away the flesh. It can be the black ice on the journey of faith that causes a multiple vehicle pileup.

This is the sort of ‘is there really a God?’ or ‘how can God be like that?’ type of doubt that causes faith to scream in pain and won’t be placated by patronising platitudes. It’s the sort of doubt that demands answers. It’s the sort of doubt that can make or break faith.

If you are experiencing that sort of doubt then you need a few things to help you deal with it.

You need good friends who will support you without judging as you work things through.

You need space and time to explore things properly.

You need grace to be able to explore previously-held beliefs and see whether they still hold true.

You need be determined to persevering through the difficult terrain.

You need to want to come through the doubt (some people prefer to wallow in it).

If you are a Christian I suggest that you spend time looking again at Jesus in the gospels and see what he has to say about faith and doubt.

And, whether or not you call it ‘prayer’ you need to seek wisdom ‘above’ to help you discern truth from lies.

It’s the sort of experience that John of the Cross called the ‘dark night of the soul’. It’s an experience that strips away a faith that we have received but not owned, that dis-empowers our own futile attempts to get to know God on our own terms and provokes within us a desire for a deeper, simpler intimacy with God. Those who have been through it, endured and emerged find that their faith is deepened, stronger and somehow much more relevant to life. It is something lived rather than something thought, it is something experienced rather than something understood. And such a faith enables us to hold faith and doubt in tension.

I think that faith and doubt are siblings – two responses to the innate human suspicion that there is more to life than simply ‘me’. In the Bible Jesus was asked by a desperate father to heal his son. In response to Jesus nudging him in the direction of faith the father exclaimed: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) The siblings are both present as the father wrestled with the reality of a son whose affliction was incurable and was causing him to injure himself and the possibility that Jesus could heal him but what if he didn’t and yet he has healed others…

That’s honest faith. That’s faith that has been wrestling with doubt and has just about emerged victorious but bruised and scarred.

If you are experiencing doubts I hope and pray that beyond a search for answers you will find truth, hope, peace and love.

Be blessed, be a blessing