the right time to change

person wearing leather wrist watch
Photo by Jonathan Miksanek on Pexels.com (not my wristwatch or wrist!)

Yesterday I had another of my regular visits to hospital to see various specialists and also have some more blood tests. I would have thought by now they’d know whether or not my blood had passed the test and was fully qualified as blood, but apparently not.

I’ve described my progress following my heart surgery as ‘two steps forwards and one step back’. That adds up to progress overall, but it’s frustrating when I am in a ‘step back’ phase, as I am now. The appointments yesterday were positive and hopeful but the cardiac rehab process is still on hold until at least next week, which means my return to ‘normal life’ (whether it ever was normal is debatable) is on hold too.

Anyway, that little diversion by way of an update distracted me from my reflection. In order to test my blood they have to take some of it away to a laboratory and this (inevitably) involves someone jabbing me with a needle. Yesterday my veins decided that they had had enough of being speared so for a while they refused to give up any blood. The doctor who was impaling me tried five times before he finally managed to hit a gusher.

The five attempts were not without cost. I suspect that my hand is going to resemble a rainbow soon with the bruising that is ominously threatening behind a mask of off-yellow discolouration. And my wrist is really sore as it took the brunt of the assault. That would not be a problem normally, but it’s my left wrist.

I am a conventional watch-wearer, normally locating it on my left wrist. But because of the aftermath of needlegate yesterday it’s too uncomfortable to wear my watch on my left wrist at the moment, so it’s located on my right wrist.

“Big deal,” you might (rightly) think. But I am finding that this minor adjustment feels really strange. The watch feels heavy on my right wrist. It feels strange, unusual, even uncomfortable on my right wrist and I am very conscious of it whereas on my left I rarely think about my watch unless I am consulting it to discover the time.

And it struck me afresh how difficult most of us humans find change. There are some people who embrace change and seems to struggle with regularity and consistency, but most of us (I reckon) find change uncomfortable, unusual and strange. We are acutely aware of what has changed and how different it looks and feels and we don’t like it. So we become ‘change-averse’. We can even fear change because it might not be something we like, and moreover we are usually not fully in control because changes can bring unexpected consequences.

If you want an example of a change-averse organisation then look at most churches. Even those with brand-new premises will be doing things in the same way they have done them for decades (or longer). That’s not a criticism, maintaining links with the past is important and for some people to reconnect with church they need to find something familiar. But the change-averseness that I am thinking of is the knee-jerk reaction against any proposals or actions that threaten ‘the way we’ve always done things’.

Leaderships need to take some responsibility for this: introducing possible change is an art form and should be done with grace, patience and discernment. Grace – recognising that for some people this will be traumatic – patience – realising that the majority of the church has not been on the same journey as the leadership and it will take some time for them to catch up – and discernment – receiving and weighing responses that are given and sifting them to find out whether God has hidden any pearls of wisdom in the field of unhappiness. Possible change that is well-introduced, well-led and adaptably implemented can bless everyone and bring them together. The opposite is also true.

And leaderships must be open to the possibility that they have heard God wrongly and that the proposed change is not what he wants. Humility is still a virtue isn’t it?

But it’s not all down to the leadership. The rest of us have to recognise that the way things are done in church can become a sort of spiritual security-blanket. We are comfortable with the way things are (why do you think we are part of that church?) and locate our spiritual well-being as an aspect of our comfortableness. If something threatens that then we don’t like it.

When I am tempted to hide my head under my spiritual security-blanket I need to remind myself of a few things:

  • My spiritual security is in my relationship with Jesus not in the church I attend.
  • Jesus embraced, introduced and inspired change – re-read a Gospel and see how much he changed and how much he spoke about change.
  • God, while unchanging, has put change into the rhythm of life (the seasons) and through his prophets says things like, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
  • Even if I am uncomfortable with change I should look to see where God is in all of this, not seek to impose my own preferences (thinly disguised as ‘thus saith the Lord’) on others.

So for the time being (pun intended) I shall continue to wear my watch on my right hand and allow it to remind me not only of the time but also that change, while uncomfortable, can also be beneficial.

dating

Rather belatedly, “Happy New Year!”

Why is it that we celebrated new years? After all it’s just another 360 degree rotation of the planet on our orbit of the sun, just like any other. The fact that we have decided to number and name dates does not make them any more special than any other. Even though fireworks were let off and ‘Auld lang syne’ was sung nothing marked 1st January 2017 as any different to 31st December 2016.diary

(In fact 31st December 2016 was more remarkable because it had an extra second in it to take account of the fact that the earth is almost imperceptibly slowing down.)

And yet we mark special dates – new years, birthdays, anniversaries, and so on. I believe it is part of what makes us human. If you think about it no other created being on this planet has an awareness of dates. Other creatures may be aware of time (the dawn chorus is an example) but they do not have a sense of dates, and they certainly don’t attach any significance to any particular dates. So why do we do it?

I think it is part of our self-awareness and our consciousness. Marking special dates is a way of establishing our relationship with other people, with time and even with ourselves – which is perhaps why we like being with those we love on significant dates, or at least why we like to receive greetings from them by sending messages on cardboard or social media.

I think it’s also an indication that we recognise (albeit subconsciously) that we are mortal. We are on this planet for a limited amount of time and marking special dates is one way in which we remind ourselves of that. And perhaps, when we pause and consider our mortality, we also pause and consider whether immortality is possible – is there more to life than this?

Maybe 2017 is a year to explore that?

(again?)

(further?)

Be blessed, be a blessing

Christmas present

As I am recycling at the moment (eg Nora the Noisy Angel) I thought I would recycle a ‘thought for the week’ I sent to the Ministers in the Eastern Baptist Association this week.

giftI had a clever mailing from a well-known Swedish furniture store come through my letter box last week. On the front it said, “Christmas is all about the present.” I groaned inwardly and decided not to open it because it was so far from what Christmas is all about. I was about to recycle it but curiosity got the better of me and I opened it. The text inside reads, “It’s the present (not the presents) that counts. And those moments with loved ones are the best of all…”

“That’s clever,” I thought to myself, “I wonder if I can include that in a Christmas message?” And then I started to reflect on whether it really is all about the present:

Advent is a season of time-travel. We travel back in time to the period before BC became AD and anticipate Jesus’ arrival. We empathise with the longing of his people for God to act. We hope and pray for a better future. We lament. We ache. We wait.

Christmas Carol Services and Nativity Plays are wonderfully nostalgic (which is why they are attended by the regular ‘once a year at Christmas’ part of our church family). They are a familiar touching place with the Unchangeable Story (which we soon discover if we dare to change things too radically). Of course they can also be incredibly poignant and painful for those who are reminded of past loss. In these moments the past is triggering our emotional response to the present.

And yet, in the midst of it, is the small voice of a child crying in a cattle feeding trough reminding us that this is the season of God, the eternal One, with us – Immanuel . In the present.

Christmas really is all about the present, God present with us.

Be blessed, be a blessing

on loan

20150106_085811 (2)This is a book stand which my Dad made for me a number of years ago. I wanted a table top stand for my Bible so I could have it open in front of me while I was working. It fulfils that purpose brilliantly.

In my previous role as a Minister in a local church I took the stand into the church and used it during Communion services to elevate my Bible and books to make it easier to read them and also to make more space on the table for the bread and wine. It lived in the church for the six and a half years I was there. When it came to me collecting my personal belongings when I left I remembered this stand and went to collect it. As I stood at the table, ready to pick it up, I found myself in something of a quandary.

It was my stand, it was made for me, it was made by my Dad. I had every right to take it back, it had only been available to the church while I was their Minister. But it had been in use in the church for six and a half years. It was useful. It wasn’t something I had felt the need to use in my study for those years. And if I took it, would lots of people in the church wonder who had taken their bible stand, since they would not have known where it came from (it just appeared one week without any announcement or fanfare)?

In the end, as you will have surmised, I decided that I wanted to take it with me. I decided that while it had been more useful while I was Minister at the church to use it for Communion services it would now be more useful to me in my study elevating my Bible so I could refer to it while preparing – the original purpose for which it was made, and the personal dimension of who made it for me was important to me. But as I was taking it with me I could not help but feel a bit selfish.

As I sit in my study now, with the view in the photo above in front of me, I reflect not only on my bible stand but more widely on questions of permanence. Six and a half years is a long time (2373 days) and it is easy to see how some people would have regarded the bible stand as a permanent fixture. They would have got used to it. They would have got used to using it. But it was only on loan. How often do we think that the things we have, the things we do, the people around us and even our very life are permanent? They will always be there. Perhaps that is why we mourn their loss so deeply when they are no longer there – stolen, destroyed, broken, worn out, moved away or even dead. What we had thought to be permanent has been revealed as temporary.

So is anything in your life permanent? This is not meant to be depressing. Because there is permanence to which we can anchor our temporary life. God’s eternal nature is a permanent fixture that transcends time and space. The Bible tells us that in the opening lines: ‘in the beginning, God…’ presupposes God’s existence before the time/space continuum in which we exist began. To ask ‘who created God’ is to make him temporary and temporal. It is to confine him to our time/space continuum in which we are able to discern prior causes and only experience things in a linear way (time only moves in one direction, despite what the Doctor may tell us about it being wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff). God is beyond time, but is also within time so that we can experience him like a boat being tossed around on a stormy sea yet tied safely to a mooring buoy fixed to the sea bed.

But the Christmas narrative also reminds us that God is not just an anchor, he has made it possible for us to be with him beyond time when our temporary temporal existence ceases.

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

If God is that time-transcending permanence and invites us to share in it, what difference does that make to the way we view the stuff and people that are part of temporary temporal existence, and what difference does it make to our desire that other people might experience that too? Our life may be on loan, but we don’t have to be alone. Ever. Forever.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Epiphanies

light on handAn epiphany is a sudden realisation or revelation about something. It comes from a New Testament Greek word that means ‘appearing’ or ‘manifestation’. It is also the name of a Christian feast day celebrated on the twelfth day after Christmas, traditionally linked to the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus, but is more about recognising who Jesus is than about the wise men.

I had a bit of an epiphany today. I had a hospital appointment in London (follow up for the operation I had last year). I travelled in on the train and London Underground and arrived in time for the appointment. Surprisingly they were only running about 15 minutes late, and I went in to see the doctor aware that they wanted to check the wound site and how my cyber-brain gadget was working.

Two minutes later I was leaving the office having had a very brief visual check and asked if it was all okay (it is). I then had the return journey that was extended by having to travel on a specific train (in order to get a cheap ticket). All that travelling and time for just a couple of minutes? I could have sent a photo or done it by Skype and saved a lot of time, effort and money!

And as I grumped about it I had my epiphany. How did the wise men feel after they had travelled such a long way home again. They had found the baby in a modest house (not a stable if you read Matthew – presumably they moved out of the stable rather promptly!) rather than the royal palace from which they had been redirected? Did they wonder if the journey had been worth it? Did they wonder if they had got it wrong?

I suspect that they were nowhere near as grumpy as I was. They had been led by an astronomical anomaly. They had been redirected following a search of Hebrew Scriptures. The star had stopped above the right house. And then there was the dream that warned them to avoid Jerusalem on the way home. For them it had been worth it. They had risked their reputations, their finances (in travel costs and generous gifts) and their time (a very long journey!) to spend a few moments with a peasant family, but it was the highlight of their lives.

I am often humbled by people’s gratitude. Not because something I have done has been the highlight of their life (far from it!!!) but because God has used something apparently insignificant to bless them. In physical terms I may not have done anything remarkable, but somehow God has used a visit, a prayer, even a sermon, and blessed people out of proportion to my involvement. He does that, you know. He takes what we offer and feeds multitudes. He takes words and speaks through them. He takes a visit and encourages through it. He takes bread and wine and inspires and blesses.

And in case you are thinking it, this is NOT limited to Ministers. God uses all of us. That includes you. That’s probably not an epiphany for you, but it’s always good to be reminded! It’s worth the effort, and worth rejoicing about on the way home afterwards.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

time travel

Time FliesWe human beings are obsessed with time. Our lives are shaped by the rudimentary 24 hour clock which God built into the solar system: the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. With the advent of timepieces (sundials giving way to clocks and watches) we have been able to be more precise about timing (admittedly sundials are less useful in cloudy / rainy countries and at night).

So phrases like ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ have become everyday expressions, reflecting the reality that when we are enjoying ourselves (or just busy) we are less conscious of the passage of time. We know too that when we are bored time seems to stand still. We know that ‘time is money’ and that a ‘stitch in time saves nine’…

Time travel has been an idea with which fiction writers and film makers have played, and it fascinates us because our experience of time is exclusively unidirectionally linear. It goes in one direction. The ‘what if’ of time travel is exciting because it breaks one of the most fundamental rules of our existence.

If you could travel in time what would you want to see? Where would you want to go? One of the apparently fundamental rules of time travel (especially if you go backwards) is that you don’t change anything. If you change something you may change an event that significantly alters our present reality – so in ‘Back to the Future’ Marty McFly inadvertently stops his mother meeting his father and falling in love, and so his own existence is threatened.

If you could go back in time and change something, what would you change? What would you do differently? There is no guarantee that the change you make or the different action would result in a better outcome than the one you have experienced. Wishful thinking, regrets, ‘if only’, and similar thoughts often reflect that things have not turned out as well as we had hoped: we rarely think that we would like to be able to go back and change something that worked out well!

We can’t turn back time. This side of death we are stuck in our unidirectionally linear existence. But God can redeem our failure. He doesn’t change what happened, but he can transform how we feel about the past and the present as well as the future. Grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and peace are all gifts that he longs to give us. It’s not always easy. I don’t pretend that these things instantly change our reality. They are gifts that sometimes we have to receive over time and with much prayer. Sometimes we need other people to help us to receive them. But they are possible.

When Peter realised he had denied knowing Jesus in the courtyard outside his trial he ‘went out and wept bitterly’. I love the way Jesus restored him (John 21 if you want to have a look). He did not change the past but he offered forgiveness, restoration, a hope and a future.

Because Jesus is risen from the dead the Christian faith is an optimistic faith. You cannot change the past, but he can change the way that the past affects your present and your future. He is in the business of giving fresh starts. There is no mess that God cannot sort out if we allow him to. There is no sin he cannot forgive if we ask him. There is nothing that can separate us from his love.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

If I could turn back time…

This morning on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show (yes, I am a Radio 2 listener now) they were attempting to give away some tickets to a concert tonight. People had texted in the day before and they called one person back to offer them the tickets on the basis that they would be prepared to cancel their arrangements today and go to the concert.

The first person who was called turned off their phone (perhaps by mistake) and the call failed. The next person they called did not pick up. Neither did the following one. Finally on the fourth attempt the person they were calling picked up and was given the tickets. The man was very happy, but how must those other people be feeling?

Did the first person hit the wrong button on their phone? Were the others driving or in another room and unable to get to answer the phone in time? Are they now feeling really disappointed at the missed opportunity? Do they regret not answering in time?

It is easy to let regrets over missed opportunities take root in our lives. They can easily take on a significance greater than the missed event. I have written about regret before in bloggages: “If only” are two of the saddest words in the English language when we put them together. They suggest sadness, disappointment, unfulfilled potential, a desire to be able to turn back time and do things differently.

SundialBut we experience time in a linear fashion and it is only going in one direction: forwards. Unless or until someone invents a working time machine (and if they do, I would like them to come back in time and tap me on the shoulder now to…. aaaaarggh. Who are you? The Doctor? Oh. Thank you for reading my bloggage in the future).

Subject to the words in parenthesis ever becoming more than silliness, what I said before still stands. We only experience time going forwards. We cannot go back. We can ask for forgiveness and / receive it. We can attempt to repair any damage we have caused. We can seek to pick up loose threads and start afresh. But we can’t undo what has been done.

Except that God is beyond time. He is not bound by our unidrectional experience. He did limit himself to that in Christ for 33 years, living within our time-space continuum, and he does exist within it now, yet he is also able to see the beginning and the end of time (as well as being the source of the beginning and end). The Cross of Christ is the moment in time when eternity breaks in. Jesus’ death is the means by which all humanity can be reconciled to God – those before him, those who witnessed it, and those who live after him. It could be seen as a fracture in the space-time continuum (Yes, alright Doctor, I know that it’s made up of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff). It’s the moment when past and future failings are dealt with and reconciliation with God is made possible. And Jesus’ resurrection is what seals the deal.

He can help turn ‘if only’ into the cathartic ‘I’m sorry’, or ‘please forgive me’, or ‘can we start again please’? He won’t turn back time but he will help to transform the effects of what has happened in the past. When we turn to him for forgiveness he wipes the slate clean from his perspective. He can also help us to release regrets linked to the past. He can help heal wounds, soothe the pain of memories, calm trouble thoughts. He is the God of fresh starts.

Be blessed, be a blessing

And apologies to any non-Doctor Who fans for the oblique references.