co incidental music

Rainbow Into CdTwice this week I have had unusual experiences with music. On Sunday I was asked to speak at a church up the road in Ipswich. I was not leading the service and didn’t know what songs would be selected. I was listening to (and singing along to) a CD of worship songs and was struck by some of the lyrics in the song ‘Over all the earth’ by Brenton Brown:

Over all the earth,
You reign on high,
Every mountain stream,
Every sunset sky.
But my one request,
Lord, my only aim
Is that You’d reign in me again.

Lord, reign in me,
Reign in Your power;
Over all my dreams,
In my darkest hour.
You are the Lord of all I am,
So won’t You reign in me again?

Over every thought,
Over every word,
May my life reflect the beauty of my Lord;
‘Cause You mean more to me
Than any earthly thing,
So won’t You reign in me again?

When I had sung it before I had always thought of ‘my darkest hour’ being like the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ in Psalm 23. And it most definitely can mean that. But a different meaning struck me. Sometimes my ‘darkest hour’ relates to when I am at my darkest – when I am being an appalling free sample of Jesus. At those times I need to hand back sovereignty of my life to him again.

I flicked the CD back to sing along to the track again and cranked up the volume. I then sang my lungs out as I drove along. And then the first ‘coincidence’ occurred. I felt very strongly that God was saying to me that we’d sing it again in the church that morning. And we did! I am still working out quite what that means, but it made me grin when the music group started up with the intro!

Then on Thursday evening I was talking with a friend from the church about grace. Not saying a prayer before a meal, but God’s lavish, astonishing, awesome grace. I felt very strongly that it would bless my friend to listen to U2’s amazing song: Grace. I put it on the CD player, selected the track and sat down. Three notes after the song had started (it has a beautiful harmonic musical intro that lasts over a minute) my friend asked me to stop the song.

I did so, a bit confused.

He told me that earlier in the week he had burnt a CD of his favourite songs to listen to in the car and when he played it there was a track that he did not recognise, had not bought and had not intentionally burnt to the CD. It must have been one of his wife’s songs and somehow he had selected it. It was this song. Grace:

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace, it’s the name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything

Grace, she’s got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She’s got the time to talk
She travels outside of karma
She travels outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty in everything

Grace, she carries a world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips between her fingertips
She carries a pearl in perfect condition

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

It was a quite astonishing ‘coincidence’ that this song had found its way onto his CD and that I had felt prompted to play it to him!

I’m not claiming that these are massively significant super-spiritual moments or that I am at all super-spiritual (far from it!). But they both felt very special to me when they happened and God blessed me through them. They reminded me that God can speak to us in all sorts of ways if we’re listening for him. Sometimes he underlines it with ‘coincidences’ and sometimes he gets our attention by the way he has brought about the ‘coincidence’ outside our control.

It is axiomatic that the more prayerful I am the more ‘coincidences’ happen.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Reflections from the sofa

In the middle of a period of leave I’m sitting on the sofa at home and relaxing. The TV is off, I am on my own. Just me and my thoughts… and The Thought.

I have been reflecting on the question of prayer. Did God really give us the gift of prayer so we could ask for what we think will make our lives better? Did Jesus teach his disciples to pray for good health, a job, a promotion, or a parking space?

Have we trivialised prayer by turning it into a shopping list?

Jesus taught us to recognise who God is when we pray. He taught us to pray for God’s will. He taught us to rely on God for our needs and to seek forgiveness even as we seek to let go of grudges. He taught us to ask for God’s guidance and the ability to resist temptation: to seek his help to live free of the influence of evil. He told us that we should be thinking about the Kingdom of God and pursuing that.

How different is that to the prayer life of the average Christian in the West?

How different is that to my prayer life?

Please God help me to be less self-centred in my prayers and to seek first your Kingdom.

Be blessed, be a blessing.


the power of anonymous prayer

prayAs a Minister I have the privilege of being part of people’s lives in ways that others don’t. Some of these people’s needs and circumstances are known to others who also pray for them and offer support and practical encouragement. Others are known to just a few, or even just to me.

And I cherish that precious gift. I try to handle that confidence (in both senses) that has been placed in me with gentleness and integrity. I do not take it for granted. It is an immense privilege, but also a significant responsibility. I often feel ill-equipped and inadequate but recognise that simply standing alongside someone in difficult circumstances can be what God wants me to do – I don’t have to have all the answers.

And because I feel ill-equipped and inadequate it leads me to my knees (usually metaphorically) in prayer. I need to ask for God’s blessing on these people. I need to ask him to use me to bless them. And at the same time I need support. I have a way of doing this without breaching confidences.

So where someone has shared something specific with me and asked me to keep it confidential I might ask others in the church to pray in a general way. To use a silly (and fictitious) example: if someone shared with me that they were struggling with an addiction to jelly babies I might ask people in the church to pray for people who are struggling with addiction. At the same time I often reassure the person who has shared the confidence that I am not going to name them, but that by involving others in prayer on the general issue I am also (covertly) asking them to pray for that person. Those general prayers include them. And God is able to join the dots!

This not only increases the amount of prayer that is offered for that person, it also hopefully reassures them that they are not alone. The rest of the church is praying for them, albeit not by name. And others who are struggling with similar issues are also blessed by prayer.

Given how strongly gossip is condemned in the pages of the Bible I sometimes worry that our ‘for your prayers’ moments can become gossip. This way of praying generally for people while those in the know have them specifically in mind avoids that possibility.

So this bloggage is a request from me – if I ask you (in person, in our weekly news sheet, or even through this blog) to pray about an issue please will you do so, recognising that there are almost certainly individual circumstances behind the generalisation? That will bless me, because I am more supported in prayer, it will bless the people (whose confidence is preserved but who are more supported in prayer) and it will bless you because you are involved in the ministry of the church.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

I ought to write a bloggage…

Under orders

‘Ought’ is a mean word. It carries with it a sense of compulsion, of obligation, of duty that can drive us forward in obedience but without passion or enthusiasm:

“I ought to do the washing up.”

“I ought to get out of bed.”

“I ought to get some exercise.”

“I ought to go on a diet.”

“I ought to go to church.”

“I ought to pray and read my bible.”

I was reflecting on ‘ought’ as I looked at the books on my ‘ought to read’ shelf. They are books that I have been given, or have bought, or have been lent, which I know would be good to read but I often struggle to make time and space for those things. So ‘I want to’ or ‘it would be good to’ has become ‘I ought to read them’.

I think that can be what happens when we feel that we ought to go to church or pray or read our Bible. In the past we have known that these things have done us good: God has blessed us through them. But they have become more of a chore and a duty over time as the passion and excitement have gradually faded. On the occasions when I recognise that this is happening I go back to the gospels. I put myself in the crowds following Jesus, I watch him and listen to him. And I am re-energised (spiritually) by the realisation that I know him. He calls himself my friend! Doing those things change back from the possibility of ‘ought’ to the recognition that they are special moments with him.

It might not be that the whole service blesses me. It might not be that I spend hours in prayer or that I read the whole Bible from start to finish in a week. But there will be moments when I catch glimpses of Jesus. I see him wink at me, beckon me towards him, or perhaps he will whisper something gently that requires me to draw closer.

A while ago there was some correspondence in the Times (I think) about whether it was worth going to church because the original correspondent had been going weekly for the previous 30 years and could not remember any of the sermons. The correspondence got heated and excited until one person concluded it with these words:

“Sir, I have been eating Sunday lunch every week for the past 30 years. I can’t remember any of them but I know that they have done me good.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

domestic distractions

Ear defendersIt’s currently quite noisy in our house. the vacuum cleaner is being navigated around, the washing machine is on a spin cycle and the tumble dryer is, erm, tumbling. I am trying to concentrate on some reading and writing (including this bloggage) and am finding the extraneous aural invasions are somewhat distracting. I can’t hear myself think.

[ASIDE: Of course nobody can hear themselves thinking – and I think that is probably a good thing: imagine the cacophony going on inside your head as all of the different thoughts shout for attention!]

It’s very easy to get distracted. One minute you can be writing a bloggage and the next min… ooh I fancy a cup of coffee. Or you can be reading your Bible and sudden… “I wonder what we should have for tea?” Praying seems to be the worst: “Our Father, who are in heaven, hallowed be Thy… what’s the name of that bloke in that TV show with the thing and the thing… Forever and ever, Amen.”

Sometimes distracting thoughts like that are a sign that we need to pause, to give God space and time. Sometimes they are a sign that we are too busy and need to slow down. Sometimes they might actually be God trying to get our attention. And sometimes I reckon they might give us new ways to reflect:

A desire for a cup of coffee might be an indication that you are thirsty, but you can also use it to consider how fairly traded you are, pray for those who produce the coffee (or tea), reflect on the privilege of having clean running water from a tap, pray for those who have to walk miles for water, reflect on Jesus saying that his water results in springs of living water welling up to eternal life…

“What should we have for tea?” can be turned into a prayer of thanks for the food we have, and a desire that we might serve others with food that is nutritious, nourishing and nommy. It might lead to a thought about the 5000 strong picnic and God’s amazing provision. Or it can take you to reflect on world hunger and the ‘Enough food IF‘ campaign.

“What’s the name of that bloke in the TV show with the thing and the thing” can be turned into a prayer of thanks for entertainment, prayer for those who work within the entertainment industry and often get neglected from our praying, and prayer for those who do not have the privileged lifestyle we have and who spend their whole waking life working.

I am not recommending that we spend our whole time wandering off following distractions. But when they happen, we can either find them irritating or we can ask God to speak through them.

So thank you Lord for the household appliances that are making so much noise. Thank you for how much easier they make our life, and help me never to take that for granted. Be with those who have to do all these things by hand, who would long to have the opportunity to be distracted by machines like that.

Be blessed, be a blessing

a helping hand

98, 99, 100! Coming, ready or not!

I have an artist’s mannequin in my study. I call him ‘Manny’ and use him sometimes if I want to take a photograph to illustrate something (usually in a PowerPoint to accompany a sermon), when I can’t find a relevant royalty-free photograph elsewhere. This is him playing ‘Hide and Seek’. Actually it was meant to portray praying, but it looks more like he is counting ready to go and find his friends.

If you look closely in the picture you will see that there is a human finger in the background. The problem with Manny is that he is cheap. I bought him in one of those discount bookshops that sell lots of other gubbins as well, for just a few pounds. He is quite capable of standing in a pose with his arms extended, and even his legs in running poses, but if I try to put him in a more complex pose (such as above) the springiness in his joints means that his arms simply twang back to extended mode. The ‘praying’ pose above is the best I could manage as a ‘hands together’ pose was impossible. I have experimented with discretely placed elastic bands and masking tape, and they work for some poses, but sometimes he needs a helping hand (literally).

If you think of the pose in the picture here as ‘prayer’, then it seems to me that there’s a bit of a parable. I too need a helping hand when I pray. We all do. I have often described prayer as a conversation between us and God, and in many ways it is. But to limit it to that is to limit our experience and expectation of prayer. It is a collaboration between us and God. The relationship between conversation and collaboration in prayer is the same as the relationship between looking at a painting and painting a painting, or between sitting on a piece of furniture and making a piece of furniture. It is not that the looking or sitting are wrong, but there is so much more that can be expressed in painting and making.

God’s Spirit is with us. He is constantly prompting and nudging us, and if we are prepared to listen to him and respond we will find that our praying becomes more creative and (I hate myself for using this word) ‘organic’ – it grows and responds to our environment.

We see a van on the road and God’s Spirit reminds us to pray for someone we know who drives a van and is in particular need. We hear a siren and the Spirit prompts us pray for those involved in that emergency. We receive some good news and the Spirit prompts us to pray a prayer of thanks. God’s Spirit puts someone’s name into our mind and we pray for them, only for us to find out later that they needed prayer at exactly that time. We listen to a worship song and God’s Spirit helps us to turn it into our own thoughts and words about Jesus. We come across something in the news that is so horrific that we find it difficult to articulate the revulsion we feel and God’s Spirit interprets those deep feelings as prayers. We find ourself in the depths of despair and God’s Spirit offers our despair to God as a cry for help.

That might sound rather idealistic and pious, but all of those are my own personal experiences, plus lots more besides. This happens when I am close to God, when I am more in harmony with him, when I am regularly reading my Bible to meet with him (as opposed to when I am preparing a sermon, when I also want to meet with him but it’s not for my own personal relationship). When I am regularly praying consciously God’s Spirit is able to provoke me through my subconscious as well. My praying becomes more natural, more responsive, more impromptu and less rigid, less of a routine, less of a (if I am honest) chore. I find my prayers are more in harmony with God’s will as I am more in tune with him.

Please do not get me wrong, I am not perfect at praying. I don’t always get it right. I don’t always experience praying in the way that I have described above. But I want to. I have experienced Technicolor (R) and monochrome no longer satisfies me. And I think that is part of the key. Having experienced more of God in prayer I want to experience even more of him in prayer. But it has to start with my desire to want more. When I do, he gives me a helping hand and off we go again.

Be blessed, be a blessing


Post the second

This post was inspired by a story told to us by the inspirational Bishop Stephen Cottrell. It reminded me of a parenting moment from long ago.

Our son was about 4 and woke up in the middle of the night, crying. I tried to pretend that I couldn’t hear him but Sally could sense I was awake and kicked me out of bed anyway. I stumbled into Thomas’s bedroom and asked him what was wrong.

“My foot hurts.”

I diagnosed cramp and tried to do the things I could remember my Mum doing for me when I was Thomas’s age and had cramp. I rubbed his foot, I stroked his head, I flexed his foot, I even put his Thomas the Tank Engine socks on him. None of it made any difference.

I am not at my best in the middle of the night. I was tired, I was unhappy at being awake and frustrated that nothing I was doing was making any difference and I could see a looong night looming ahead of me.

Frustratedly I asked, as gently as I could, “What do you want me to do?”

His little voice answered, “Why don’t you ask God to make it better?

Now I had two problems. Not only was I tired and unhappy but now as a dad and a Minister I had to work out how to explain to a four year-old that God doesn’t always answer prayers in the way that we want. I am a man of great faith!

In the end, because my faith is so strong, I reasoned that I could pray first and that would give me time to work out what to say.

I prayed something like this: “Dear God, please make Thomas’s foot better and help him have a good night’s sleep. Amen.” (The real but unspoken prayer was, “I want to go back to bed.”)

The little voice from the bed said, “Amen.”

Then Thomas rolled over, snuggled down and went to sleep.

And I slunk back to bed having learnt a lot about prayer and faith.

A wise person once said, “Unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a child you will never enter it.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.