Daddy, are you out there?

man in white shirt carrying boy
Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash website

In the past couple of days, we have been listening again to Coldplay’s ‘Everyday Life’ (the YouTube recording of the songs filmed in Jordan is worth watching – a wide variety of music and a wonderful sunrise and sunset).

One of the songs, is simply called ‘Daddy’. The title of this blog post is taken from the lyrics. The song is quite haunting in its melody. Hearing it once more stirred various thoughts…

Today as I write, is the day on which my Dad was born back in 1934. This is the first time that I can’t wish him Happy Birthday. I am so very thankful for his life including his being a precious father to Julie, Sally and myself. He added so much into our lives and so positively impacted many others too.

Dad, you are missed!

I am also grateful for being able to be a dad – it is a privilege to be so for Anna and JJ. Listening to the song caused me to reflect back over the past 23 and a bit years of parenting. A mix of some smiles and some sighs as I think of my own experience as a father. This said, I am so glad for the journey and all that Anna and JJ have added into our lives.

Hurray for all those fathers out there seeking to do the best they can for their kids. Keep showing up – I know it can be a challenge at times but it makes a real difference! What you do as a dad may not win you any medals or place you on a podium but it is worth it!

(As an aside, I write that with all due respect to all the Olympic competitors – we have been amazed watching performances in Japan).

Of course a big shout too for all the mums, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings and others who also embrace caring.

The whole concept of fathering, including the idea of God as Father, is one of the reasons that I am drawn to charities like ‘International Justice Mission’ seeking to help those caught up in human trafficking or ‘Compassion’ helping children weighed down by poverty. The importance of caring for others, including those in situations of need, was modelled to us as we grew up. For Mum and Dad, it was not just sentiment, it impacted their actions, their financial giving, their prayers. In turn this influenced us all also.

Coming back to the song once more, here are some of the lyrics –

Daddy, are you out there?

Daddy, won’t you come and play?

Daddy, do you not care?

Is there nothing that you want to say?

I know

You’re hurting, too

But I need you, I do

(Songwriters: Christopher Anthony John Martin / Guy Rupert Berryman / William Champion / Jonathan Mark Buckland Daddy lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Mgb Ltd)

A Sunday Times interview with Chris Martin included his speaking about the song. I can’t access the original article but apparently he explained that the song was written in relation to three things –

For all those children whose dads have disappeared on them (well it was worded with blunter language than this)

The fact that he himself was often away from his own children and

Thirdly it was written, thinking on the US prison system and how in his view, there is “outright racism woven into so many laws, and kids who, as a result, are denied their fathers”  

( https://www.songfacts.com/facts/coldplay/daddy)

The interview was published in November 2019 – the same month that I last visited my Dad. How little any of us knew then about the pandemic to come and the impact it would have. Though as Chris Martin alludes to, societal ills like racism have been having a deep detrimental impact for so long, for far too long.

Listening to the words of ‘Daddy’…

  • My heart goes out to those who have not known their fathers for whatever reason. Or where knowing their father was/is not healthy for them. Or for different causes, they no longer have contact with their dad.
  • My heart goes out to those who have lost their fathers due to war, refugee separation, famine, covid-19 or other cause of death.
  • My heart goes out to those separated from their fathers due to human trafficking or even worse to comprehend, sold by their fathers into slavery.
  • My heart goes out to those who would love to be fathers but have not been able to be.
  • My heart goes out to those fathers who have lost a child.

I know that such words, however supportively meant in a blog, do not lessen the impact any of the above. Yet it seems important to acknowledge these realities. Though I hope in writing this, it does not come across as insensitive at all. I can but apologise if it does.

If any of the above touches close to home, I trust that there are those with whom you can share your journey and receive support and compassion.

‘Daddy’ as a song, is for me, an example of the gift and power of music. It stirred all of the thoughts above plus also a sense of not really knowing quite how to put things into words. Ever had music impact you that way?

Not knowing how to put things into words… Yes, I am at that point right now. How do I end this blog? I think I will simply say if you read this far, thank you!

Andy

Beware of the bias within!

person holding eyeglasses
Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash website

Warning!  Bias alert!

“England’s men are the best international football team!”

What do you make of such a sentence?

How you respond may depend on which nation you are from. Italians for instance, as Euros Champions, might well differ right now. Your response might  be impacted by whether you are interested in the sport or not. Or whether you are willing to be more neutral in your considerations. Plus what about considering not just other nations but also quite rightly, women’s teams?

This is not a blog for knocking supporting your favourite team – domestic or international. I was cheering England to win last weekend, especially as it was at Wembley. Instead what I want to try and tease out with this sporting example is a small word which can be big in its impact – bias:

A bias is a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/bias

As the article linked above points out, some bias of course can be very helpful. For instance choosing healthier foods. Or being inclined towards regular exercising or supporting Man Utd (maybe that one is debateable and it was not suggested by Psychology Today!).

Another example of good bias could be not giving space to our lives being influenced by toxic people. Yet some care needed with such a point. How do you or I define ‘toxic people’? Might our bias or the bias of the group(s) we are part of possibly put someone unfairly in the toxic category? So we end up ‘othering’ others, to refer back to my last blog post.

So again I write,

Warning! Bias alert!

Perhaps all of us would like to see ourselves as open minded and that we see others clearly. Yet is that so? What are the ‘lenses’ through which we view others? Beware of the bias within!

About four years ago, I was starting to get quite regular bad headaches. Also some street signs from a distance were not so clear. More than one person suggested I go and get my eyes tested. So sure enough, off I went to be checked. After assessing my sight, the optician put onto some test glasses, various aperture filters(the right words?). Then he asked me to look out into the street. Next he asked me to look without the glasses. It was now so blurry! There was no further need to convince me I needed glasses! And as a result of having the specs? No more headaches and once more, crispy looking signposts!

What I thought was clear vision for me without glasses was in fact not so. I think this illustrates what bias in our thinking can do to the way we view others or situations. Before I had my glasses, I was not fully aware that I was not seeing things clearly. It was a change that had sneaked up on me overtime which I was not aware of. So can it be with bias. Through our personal experiences, observation, the influence of and interactions with others, we can build up unfair ways of ‘seeing’, without maybe even consciously realising. Our seeing of others may indeed be fuzzy.

Recently I have been provoked afresh to think about my life and bias as I have listened to some podcasts on the topic, recommended to us by a friend. There are all kinds of types of bias and a plethora of material on the internet about this. Here is one short article that outlines some examples:

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-identify-cognitive-bias#how-does-cognitive-bias-impact-the-way-we-think

I think it is well worth our time to reflect on our own lives and see if any of these biases are there in us. This could benefit not just our own self-awareness but also how we treat others.

Bias can be there in all of us.

For instance, I remember a time growing up where I believed (was taught, given the bias) that most (if not all) Catholics were not really Christians.  Such ‘in-group bias’ was easily reinforced since I didn’t really know anyone who said they were Catholic. They were an ‘othered’ group, not kosher to mix my religious metaphors.

I don’t hold such a view anymore. Why the change? The writings of Henri Nouwen were a big influence. Perhaps hopefully  my learning more humility as I got older (still an on-going journey). A huge factor was meeting people who are Catholic and have a deep faith in Christ. ‘But, but Catholics believe this…’ some might say. I get it – there are aspects of Catholic teaching that I don’t go with. Though I think some ‘protestant’ objections may be more about misunderstanding and bias than actual theology.

Sorry to anyone for whom this ‘religious’ example seems irrelevant. Apologies also to anyone for whom this example leaves lots up in the air theologically. I am trying to illustrate bias without getting into details about what is ‘sound’ Christian doctrine. There is a legitimate place for that but it is not my focus here.

I am not suggesting exploring what is truth is unimportant. I think it is. Yet can any of us claim we have got it all sorted? Who can claim they have got Jesus for instance neatly tied up in a box?  If God is only willing to express His grace, love, mercy, truth to those with 100% sorted beliefs, would any of us on this planet be possible recipients?

Perhaps how we answer such questions depends partly on our biases too?

I write for one final occasion in this blog:

Warning –Bias alert!

How conscious are we about what we are reading/watching/listening to online? I think we can easily be lulled into bias without being alert to this. For instance, I usually default to reading The Guardian online (a UK newspaper). I would be myopic in my awareness though to believe that its reports are never slanted or opinionated in anyway. It is why I seek to check out other news sites too. Meanwhile social media networks are arguably feeding us what we want to see or even shaping us as to what we want to see (depending on how you view the influence of algorithms). Some brief food for thought on this:

https://sproutsocial.com/insights/social-media-algorithms/

I draw this blog to a close. I hope in these summer weeks (or winter weeks if you are south of the Equator) that you will have some good listening, watching or reading. May it be refreshing, renewing, relaxing, inspiring, challenging or fun (or all of those together). Yet in all this and in the way we view others in our families, workplaces, neighbourhoods, in other nations, cultures or beliefs – let’s be aware of the possible bias that lies within us!

Andy

Look out for the label!

blue green yellow and red plastic toy
Photo by David Zieglgänsberger on the Unsplash website

A little bit earlier I was painting a radiator and some pipes. Nothing as exciting colour wise as the brush above, just plain white.

Before opening the tin, I checked the label – to see if it was the right paint for the job and also how to wash the brush afterwards (if I can avoid the stink of turps I would rather do so!). Thankfully what it said on the label matched up to the contents! Imagine if it didn’t and I was not attentive and ended up painting on a different colour or even smearing on baked beans or ready made custard! (Okay, I realise that is highly unlikely – though I am quite sleepy today so my attention is not so alert!)

Labels can be very useful when these accurately describe what they refer to…

The other day with some leaders in the church community I belong to, we took some time to record a podcast about ‘labels’ in relation to people. We reflected on questions like

  • When are labels helpful or not?
  • Why do people like to label others?
  • How does culture impact our understanding of labels?
  • Did  Jesus use labels at all and if so, how?
  • Are there labels that need reclaiming or redefining?
  • Are we living under the weight of labels that we or others have put on us? Have we imposed such a weight on others at all?

I am not going to claim that we came up with anything close to definitive answers to all the above. Yet we dived in as best we could in a limited time.

There are aspects of my life where it can be very helpful that there is a label attached. My blood type is an example of something physical that could be a very vital label in some situations. My Myers Briggs personality type is an insightful (though not restrictive) label in my understanding myself more (read or jump to the end if you want to find out what it is!).

Personality types can help us to understand others better too. Yet there can also be the danger that we then ‘box’ someone in and hold them in a certain place in our minds and responses. Caution if we are ever doing this to anyone (or ourselves!)

When we label someone or a group of people in order to ‘other’ them, to isolate, to discriminate, to validate ourselves as being better in some way or that we are part of the ‘in’ crowd, to stereotype or demonise, then things can become toxic. I think honesty dictates that we face up to the reality that we can all easily slip into labelling others before we even realise it. Is there anyone or any group we are presently labelling in ways that are diminishing?

Look out for the label: any label – caution needed!

Let’s seek to remember that though many people share some common characteristics, every human being is unique. No label can fully sum up any of us. Each person distinctly ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27).

Can labels be a catalyst for curiosity and deeper understanding of one another? As one of the other leaders said in the podcast discussion, labels acting as a bridge rather than a box. For instance if someone describes themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘Christ follower’ or ‘Buddhist’ or ‘atheist’ or ‘vegan’, do we leave it at that or are we open to asking someone to tell us more about their life behind any labels they use? (I am suggesting here that labels can be helpful in our lives at times).

One other train of thought as I write, is about how we ‘perceive’ labels that we or others use?

Let me illustrate using from church circles, the word ‘evangelical’. For many this has come to mean something harmful, to be avoided, to take a stand against. Why? I think because the word ‘evangelical’ has in some people’s minds come to mean a certain heady mix of religion and politics with a crusading moral agenda that is intolerant of any other views.

That is how it has come to be understood by some people in different countries, especially in ‘western’ nations  (mmm,’western’- there’s another label!)

Yet the word evangelical derives from the Greek, euangelion meaning ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’. So in its more original form, the label evangelical simply refers to someone who believes in the good news of the teachings of Jesus and the importance of this for their lives and others. (To those who would like a more theological or in depth definition here, I apologise!)

When the label is used like that, it can refer to a whole range of Christians, many of whom are also concerned about issues like racism, other forms of prejudice or climate change. It can mean Jesus followers who would also reject the politicised ideas that the word ‘evangelical’ has come to be associated with. The word can describe Christians, who though wishing to share their faith, do not necessarily want to do this in an aggressive manner and who also see the value in understanding the journeys of others for instance.

And yes sadly, it can refer to those who are seemingly quite or very intolerant of others. It is only right that as someone who due to my faith in Jesus could be deemed ‘evangelical’, that I acknowledge there has been much done, associated with this word, that does not reflect Christ’s teachings.  Sorry that was a bit of a long sentence. Feel free to re-read it or just move on!

Actually these days ‘evangelical’ is a label I often choose not to use due to what it can trigger in the minds of others. I prefer to use ‘christian’. Though I also realise that this label does not have a positive connotation for all, perhaps including for some reading this.

Originally ‘christian’ was possibly a sarcastic nickname; the first recorded use being in Acts 11:26 in the New Testament. It was something like, “oh look, here come the ‘little Christs’ (Christians).” Funny in a way, that the first generations of Jesus followers allowed such a label to stick and in the end, they embraced it. Why? Well, I leave that question hanging in the air.

There is so much more I could write about labels and the way we use and respond to these. I hope there is at least some food for thought here.

Look out for the label – that we or others give. Is it helpful, is it grace filled, is it accurate, does it aid our understanding of one another or does it divide?

Time to go and checking on my painting.

Andy

PS I forgot initially when I posted this – for those who want to know, with Myers Briggs, I am ISTJ.

Cut the chains!

Picture by Clker-Free-Vector-Images on Pixabay

Yesterday in the Netherlands, it was Keti Koti – which in Sranantongo means ‘the chain is cut’ or the ‘chain is broken’.  The day marks the emanicipation from slavery of those in Surinam on 1st July 1863, though many would not really be free until 10 years later.

Recently the four city governments of Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam and Utrecht called for the day to be made a national holiday. A letter from the four cities to the Dutch Government included these words,

“By commemorating, society takes responsibility, but it also commits itself to a society and a future in which there is no room for racism and inequality of opportunity. It should be a day to mourn and celebrate, to look at lessons learned from the past and a shared future”

(source: https://nltimes.nl/2021/06/21/major-dutch-cities-pushing-abolition-slavery-become-national-holiday )

Being British I also come from a group of nations which were heavily embroiled with slavery. In the UK, debate continues for example over whether various statues of those linked to the slave trade should be allowed to stay in place. Some have been taken down, sparking strong differences of opinion. One perspective on this topic, can be read here, if you are interested:

https://theconversation.com/a-meaningful-debate-about-statues-is-happening-the-government-just-doesnt-seem-to-be-taking-part-162806

As I read about Keti Koti, some things struck me…

Firstly, the importance to not forget the wrongs of the past in order to help decrease there being room for a repeat in the future. Whether that be the harrowing scourge of slavery or other horrendous actions like The Holocaust or the ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia.

Secondly, many argue that there is still some journey to go for a full owning up to the negative aspects of colonial pasts. As I grew up in school, the narrative was essentially of Britain always as the ‘good guys’. Activities like slavery as far as I remember were not focused on much or when mentioned, rather brushed over. Thankfully by the time I taught History in the 1990s, the curriculum at least gave more space to looking at slavery and Britain’s role in this.

Yet in 2021, what does a full owning up look like? I can’t say I am sure. Though I recognise it probably includes further potentially difficult reflection. For instance, as a Christian am I truly open to examine more about how mission work at times was so enmeshed with ‘white is right’ colonialism and what the impacts were of this? I have begun afresh to find out more on this subject, it does not always make for comfortable reading.

I do not believe that it is fair to label all missionaries in the past as being inherently wrong in their actions or always detrimental of local cultures. I think such labelling also to be unfair, for instance, towards friends who are missionaries now. The church where I pastor exists, humanly speaking, thanks to people who gave of their time in missionary service in the Netherlands. I am very grateful for them.

This said, I also know it would be inaccurate and unjust to not acknowledge that wrong, destructive things took place linked with the cause of spreading the Gospel message in the past (and maybe also at times, now). At times, colonial values and norms and Christian faith were far too intertwined. Leading to things that were (are) a bad contradiction to the teachings of Jesus.

Mmm, it is a big topic and I am no expert on it. I have written and re-written the previous paragraphs a number of times as I want to avoid causing misunderstandings or unintentional hurt to friends in mission work. I toyed with leaving this part out altogether yet I think honesty says to leave it in.

Thirdly, slavery sadly is not just a thing of the past. Human trafficking and modern day slavery is impacting lives right now even as you read this.  It is estimated that there are around 40 million people in slavery, 71% being women or children.

(source: https://www.antislavery.org/slavery-today/modern-slavery/)

That is more than double the population of the Netherlands trapped in this way!

Clearly there is much still to be done to see slavery eradicated. Groups like Anti- Slavery International, International Justice Mission and Stop the Traffick dedicate themselves to seeing people freed and trafficking ended. Of course, more Governmental action is needed too. This is the Dutch Government’s present stance for instance: https://www.government.nl/topics/human-trafficking/combating-human-trafficking

As I move towards ending this blog, I realise it could be said that I have a lot of privilege. What do I know of being oppressed or discriminated against for my skin colour or other aspects of my identity? Even as a Christian, in this country at least, I do not experience any direct injustice due to my beliefs.

I feel challenged even as I type this. I don’t want to sit at a laptop and moralise! What difference will it make in my actions that I have written this? Beyond writing this blog post or your reading it, whatever our own sense of identity (or how others might label us), what can we do on behalf of others?

Keti Koti – chains being broken. With that thought, some words recorded in the Old Testament seem appropriate to finish with:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?… Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry to help, and he will say: Here am I.”

Isaiah 58:6-7,9 New International Version

Andy

The impact of influence!

Photo of Lyon Olympic Stadium, by Thomas Serer, published October 2017 on Unsplash website

You may have noticed that the Euros 2021 are happening at present – a fabulous football feast or a surplus of sorrowful soccer depending on your standpoint!

A seemingly small moment during a press conference last week had a huge impact. A certain renowned player from Portugal moved bottles of a famous fizzy drink brand out of the way. Picking up a water bottle, he said, ‘Agua’. So what? Well that simple action wiped 4 billion off the global value of a specific beverages company.

The impact of influence!

It was Father’s Day last Sunday. Besides my thinking about how grateful I am to be the dad of Anna and JJ, thoughts turned to my own father who passed away earlier this year. Dad had strength of character including quiet resilience and honourable consistency and through his love for us, he was influential in a myriad of significant ways. Was he perfect? Of course not, none of us are. This said, I am very thankful for Dad’s life.

The impact of influence!

“Leadership is influence”

So declares writer and consultant John Maxwell.

We all have influence. Therefore arguably we all exercise leadership to others – even if we do not have a formal position of leading/management. I think this is true whether we choose to embrace that reality or not. Sometimes what our influence is may be unclear of course. I believe though that whether it is for good or for bad, is more than just something random. One of the deciding factors is intentionality.

“Love your neighbour as yourself”

Matthew 22:39, New International Version

What kind of influence are we on our family members, friends, neighbours, colleagues, students we study with, those in the community groups we belong to?

How are we influencing others for their good? Do we have a heart to help others grow and to prosper? (I am not primarily thinking about monetary wealth right now)

Such growth may well include encouraging change on the part of other individuals (though let’s be willing to change too and not approach someone else with moralising judgment but instead a desire to journey with them).

Are we willing to use our influence to stand up for those who are marginalised, oppressed, forgotten or discriminated against?

The impact of influence!

Here’s a few suggestions to reflect on our own influence and on who influences us –

Why not purpose to encourage/support/spur on one other person a week?

For instance, through a message sent by phone, an email, a card, a phone call, a visit. If once a week seems too much, start at once a month.

Take a blank piece of paper and brainstorm all the people whom you interact with regularly and reflect on what is your influence with them, be it positive or not so good. How do you want to respond? Are there actions you want to take?

(If you believe in praying, this might be a great time to pray for these people, including asking for grace and help that your influence can be life giving to them)

Think about who influences you –

Positively – who is this and why? If they are still alive, have you thanked them recently? If not, what holds you back from this? When you think of those who are a positive influence into your life, what can you learn from the way they are in terms of how you can then influence others?

Negatively – who is this and why? How can you minimise the impact? I appreciate that if it is someone at work, then avoiding them may not be a valid strategy. What could you do? If totally stumped on what to do, who could you speak with about it?

For anyone reading this, who is being made to feel unsafe or threatened by someone else, I am so sorry this has been happening. Please don’t suffer in silence. If it seems you have got no one to talk with/to help, can I at the very least offer to support you to find someone?

If certain social media threads are life sapping for us or demoralising, then why not unfollow, delete or block such sources? I am not advocating we do not listen to other voices nor that we avoid opinions which differ from our own. I only wish to suggest that we need to be discerning about what has entry into our lives.

The impact of influence!

Those were just a few thoughts from me – I hope it might be a good influence! ‘Agua’ – time to go and get a glass of water and see what is happening in the football world!

Andy

 

 

 

The corrosive nature of comparison?

two cars in front of shutter doors
(Photo by Dietmar Becker available from the Unsplash website)

Do you have role models, people that you look up to? I think it can be inspiring, stirring, encouraging to have those from whom we can learn.

For us all there are probably famous names that come to mind. Whom would you list?  

Yet, beside such ‘known’ persons, I also think of all kinds of people I know/have known who have positively influenced my life directly. I am very grateful for each one. Who are you thankful for? If it is someone you know, have you ever expressed your gratitude to them?

Now, with this being said about the value of role models, what about our comparing ourselves to others? In what ways can that be helpful, in what ways can it be not so? Perhaps something for us all to ponder.

Sometimes I think comparison can become very corrosive. A verse from the New Testament seems very relevant:

For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. 

2 Corinthians 10:12, New King James Version

It is good to be able to learn from others and to reflect on how our own lives are going. Yet comparison can be twisted into being a toxic trap. For example, it can make us puffed up with pride – “Oh, I am so glad I am not like so and so!” Or we can end up consciously/sub-consciously being always competitively driven. Or then again, we can be dragged down by discouragement – “Oh I am a failure, I am not like…” Like the car on the left in the photo above, perhaps it seems like we can never match up!

Over the years, I have had times where I have battled with corrosive comparison rather than the kind of comparison that inspires. When I first sensed a calling to be a pastor, I thought I couldn’t step up to that since I was not like other leaders/ preachers I knew of. At times, I still have to fend off such thoughts. It can be paralysing. Ever journeyed with ‘imposter syndrome’?

Even with writing blogs, I sometimes have to push away comparison – “Look at others, they are read by loads of people, you’re not, are you?”

Social media can be a real vehicle for snaring us with comparison toxicity. Everyone else can seemingly be doing so much more and living far more exciting lives. In some cases, even amidst this pandemic – projecting an image of super achievement, despite lockdown, whilst maybe you feel that you are just surviving! Maybe the best thing for some of us is to unfollow some of the voices and lessen the ‘noise’ on the internet that feeds into our lives.

We can get caught up and defeated by comparisons to others in all manner of ways. For instance, in relation to our appearance, the amount in our bank accounts, our apparent sphere of influence, our achievements, where we live or what car we drive (if we even have one). Of course much of what I list here reflects very much ‘western’ aspirations of what supposedly marks a successful life (incidentally, does it mark success?) Though, I suspect that in all cultures in the world from the Amazon to Angola, from China to Cape Horn, there are comparison traps people fall into.

What shapes your sense of worth? Is it too dependent on comparison?

At the very beginning of the Bible, we read of people made ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27). Theologians have debated over the centuries how much of God’s image remains within humanity. I am not going to attempt to comment on that here. Yet, I will say the Genesis story and other places throughout the Bible, show that all, not just some, have value.

Christ’s call to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart…’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 10:27) regularly brings me back to consider what is core to my faith and life, to reflect on what is really important and worth giving my life to. Such love can help shape how I see and treat others, including moving beyond comparison projections onto them or myself. If you read on in Luke 10, Christ tells a powerful story to answer ‘who is my neighbour?’ That it is a Samaritan who helps a stranger left for dead on the road, is probably lost on many of us. Back then, it would have been scandalous for many of Jesus’ listeners. Think of a person or group of people whom you distrust or are biased about – put them into the story rather than the Samaritan man.

All having value, means you and me and everyone we meet (even if that is online or socially distanced right now!) All includes those we might be tempted to ‘other’, ignore, exclude or demonise. All encompasses those we compare ourselves to or that we put on pedestals and then are surprised or indignant when they fall off!

To believe all have value can in itself become distorted into a feel-good sentimentality. To say that we all have value does not mean we will all automatically get on with each other. It does not mean all our connections with people will be easy. Affirming the value of all people should not deny that there are those like human traffickers who are involved in reprehensible acts. Let’s not allow declaring the value of all to become an obstacle to rooting out injustice, prejudice or oppression. Rather, I think it should spur us on in such matters.

I simply finish by suggesting –  let’s learn from others, be inspired by others. Yet since we only have one life this side of eternity: let’s not spend it caught up being corroded by unhealthy comparison.

Andy

Hope that knows how to holler!

hope marquee signage surrounded by trees
Photo by Ron Smith available on Unsplash website

‘She had thought hope was dead inside her, but now she realized that it merely slumbered’ Of Maered in ‘The Gift’ by Alison Groggan

This week I didn’t hit a place of hope being dead inside but it did take some knocks. Ever felt like that? Maybe amid the ongoing realities of the pandemic, you are in such a place right now. If so, don’t journey on your own – who can you open up to?

The title above ‘Hope that knows how to holler’ comes from a poem by Jan Richardson (see more below). It aptly captures how in the past days, my ponderings about hope .

For instance in the Old Testament we can read,

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life”

Proverbs 13:12, New International Version

I think those words could be so true for many during these days of lockdown – hope deferred rather than longing fulfilled. Also, what of those in Myanmar crying out amid hopes deferred as the military have reasserted their grip? Those in refugee camps and conflict zones around the world? Nations like Lebanon pounded by all kinds of problems? Where are longings fulfilled rather than hope deferred?

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by needs immediately around us or in the wider world. Well, if you believe in praying, we can pray for others. Whether we consider prayer having any point or not, we can’t personally respond to everything, yet let me ask,

To whom or where might you be able to help bring some fresh hope?

As I mulled on the Proverb above, I also reflected on these words,

“Find rest O my soul in God alone; my hope comes from him”

Psalm 62:5, New International Version

In the past couple of weeks or so, I have found it hard at times to be still and find rest – a mix of grief, getting too busy and being very aware of the needs of others. Yet I know deep inside of me, that my hope does come from God. Hope in Scripture is not a maybe like, ‘I hope Manchester City don’t actually win the league!’ (sorry to any City fans!) Rather the word is far more about a certainty. I take great hope from such hope!

I mentioned Jan Richardson above. A friend sent me a book she wrote, which contains blessings for times of grief. I am grateful for him sending it to me. In it is a poem about hope which really struck me. I share it here, perhaps it will help you too –

Blessing of Hope:

So may we know the hope

that is not just for someday

but for this day-

here, now, in this moment

that opens to us:

hope not made of wishes but of substance,

hope made of sinew and muscle and bone,

hope that has breath and a beating heart,

hope that will not keep quiet and be polite,

hope that knows how to holler when it is called for,

hope that knows how to sing when there seems little cause,

hope that raises us from the dead-

not someday but this day,

everyday,

again and

again and

again.

Copyright: Jan Richardson from The Cure of Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief.  janrichardson.com

May you and I know such hope, not just for ourselves but also for the sake of others. Even if that seems impossible for you right now, may you know grace from God and the companionship of others, in journeying to find fresh hope.

Andy

Living in the mourning after!

It is a beautiful sunny day here in Leiden – typical of how it is has been these past days. The change in weather is gratefully received!

So perhaps it might seem strange in what follows to write about mourning rather than a bright morning! Yet since my last blog post about Dad, I have been meaning to reflect further on loss.

Prayers and words of support from others have been a help in recent weeks (thank you if that included you reading this). Reflecting on Scripture, especially the Psalms and personal prayer have been water to the soul. As has being out in nature and time with family, such as movie nights. Have read books and articles on grief which have given some insightful perspective.

Though also had moments when I really couldn’t face reading anything on the topic. Plus been journeying with a range of emotions including numbness or moments of crying when I least expect it. Or thinking, I need to ring Dad today to then remember, no that is not possible. Also my brain asking me questions along the way like, “Am I grieving properly?”

As if there is a right way, a prescribed method! Sure there are the 5 stages of grief/loss that Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote of in her 1969 book ‘On Death and Dying’. Though as she later commented, her intent was not to suggest there is a neat linear pattern to loss nor that someone necessarily will experience all 5 stages( denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance).

David Levy in his book, ‘The Orphaned Adult’ writes,
“Like a fingerprint, each person’s grief is unique. There are no standards of grief, no natural history”

Which leads me to the thought that in the midst of this pandemic, so many people are experiencing loss.

Yes there is the loss of loved ones and all that entails. There is the bizarre connected reality then of funerals where either people are not able to attend (that was so strange not being there in person) or even if they can be present – no hugs, handshakes, no chatting over a drink.

There is the loss of seeing family and friends in these months. Studies released recently in the Netherlands show not surprisingly that lockdown measures are impacting the mental health of university students for instance, who are only studying online and not seeing others in person.

Loss of work, loss of travel. Loss of being part of our church, mosque, synagogue or temple community. Loss of being in our sports club, the drama society or other social organisation. Loss of the ‘little things’ like a drink at a café or going to the cinema (which of course are big things for those who work in these sectors).The loss of things to look forward to perhaps?

Hold on Andy, aren’t you being a bit morose in this blog? You began by writing it is a sunny day – get back there!

Yet I think it is important to acknowledge loss, to mourn that which has gone as well as to support others in their loss. Maybe you have not lost someone close to you in the past year but nevertheless you are still finding other losses you have experienced very hard. It has got to be okay to still express that! Sure be sensitive to others, yes seek to remember what there is still to be thankful for but don’t deny or ignore your own loss.

How can you acknowledge your loss in a way that fits who you are? Talking with others? Painting? Sculpting? Writing about it? Praying? Composing a song or piece of music? Planting something in your garden? Seeking help from a counsellor? These are just some suggestions not prescriptions.

What of walking with others in their loss?

I have been reading the book of Job again in the Old Testament. His friends did very well in their support when they sat with Job amidst his great loss. Things went wrong when they opened their mouths and started trying to correct and fix him with their water-tight theology.

Megan Devine in her book on loss, ‘It’s Ok that you are not Ok’suggests that as we journey with each other in our losses, it is not about making sure each other is happy but that each other is heard. Let someone talk, question, rant if need be. Without our giving into the urge that we have to immediately try and sort them out.

Though having commented about Job’s friends, let’s not allow a concern about saying the wrong thing to cause us to avoid offering support to those walking with loss.

A verse from the New Testament has been freshly poignant to me in these recent weeks where it can be read of,
“the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:4 New International Version

Comforted ourselves (which may take time and space). Yet the verse also speaks of being comforted by God, that we might comfort others. In the midst of my own grief, I am grateful that such heaven sent comfort is available. At the same time, I realise that for some reading this, the idea of such a divine source of strength may seem like mere wishful thinking.

Will we reach out to each other afresh in these days? Amidst all the weariness of lockdowns and covid measures. (Even if it has to be on Zoom or a phone call rather than in person!)

Can we be those who help foster an atmosphere of grace, where people can express what they are mourning over and we can do so also? Without judgment, without comparison but with a bucketful of compassion!

Andy

Dedicated to Dad!

clear glass bottle with white flowers
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez made available on the Unsplash website

Early in the morning on Monday 18th, my Dad passed away. A precious Dad, Grandad, great Grandad.

Typing those sentences brought me to a halt – what to write next? Back in May last year I wrote a blog post about my grandmother passing away. Finding the right words then to honour her life was a challenge. I find that even more so as I seek to give honour to my Dad.

Perhaps a brief biography is the place to start?

Dad was born in Ilfracombe, North Devon (UK) in 1934, the second oldest son. Educated locally including going to the grammar school, he met his future wife Ann during that time via church related activities. Mum and Dad were married in 1957 whilst Dad was doing his national service with the Royal Air Force. He went onto have a successful career in local government within different authorities connected with his training as a civil engineer. In retirement, he had other roles such as being the parish clerk for Berrynarbour in the early 1990s, when they lived back in Ilfracombe for a few years.

Three children born – Julie, Sally and myself. Outside of his work, Dad served in different leadership roles within church congregations and along with Mum had a keen interest in generously supporting missions work and charities. This included taking them to China – quite an adventure for Dad in culinary terms as he was kind of a ‘meat and two veg’ person.

It would be incomplete to not mention their enjoyment as a couple in doing up houses and then moving to a new place. It became a bit of a running source of amusement between us as siblings.

Mmm, an inadequately written bio, especially as it does not convey my deep gratitude .

We knew we were loved and cared for growing up and that continued throughout Dad’s life. It was true of him as a grandad and great-grandad too.

I am grateful how, along with Mum, Dad modelled what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ though without forcing it onto us. Helping us to explore how faith could be walked out in daily life without treading on others with our beliefs. All of this had a huge impact on me, including that I now serve as a church minister.

I am grateful for values Dad helped to instil such as generosity, forgiveness, compassion, keeping your word, taking responsibility for one’s actions, being considerate of others, patience and kindness.

I am grateful for so many practical skills he passed on including imparting to my sisters and me having an eye for detail when it comes to administrative and financial tasks.

I am grateful for the way Mum and Dad supported us all through our education and career development, including being a sounding board for decisions we needed to make at various times.

I am grateful Dad had the patience to help teach me to drive and the trust to send me out in their car once I had passed the test (at the second attempt). I remember early on having a near miss whilst driving. It shook me up so I shakingly drove home. Dad listened and then encouraged me to get back out and drive again – it was the reassurance I needed. It was typical of the kind of quiet encouragement that Dad gave.

I am grateful for fences erected, curtains hung, carpets laid, shelves made straight and a whole other multitude of DIY tasks he helped Helen and me with.

I am grateful for times he and Mum were able to visit us here in Leiden as well as being with them in our earlier Devon days of marriage and parenting.

I am grateful, though living in the Netherlands, for times seeing Dad in recent years including before he was more restricted physically, trips to Chester and to the Isle of Wight.

Grateful for the playing of board games – I even managed once in a blue moon to beat him at Scrabble!

Thankful for regular phone calls together, which came even more into the forefront over this past year as covid restrictions meant my being unable to visit.

I am so glad Julie and Sally could visit Dad in hospital last Sunday evening and that I could speak to Dad on the phone and express my thanks and tell him one more time I love him.

As I draw this reflection about Dad to a close, I want to express my thankfulness for Julie and Sally and all the dedicated care they gave to Dad during recent years, all the different ways they helped him. Also much thanks to the Home Instead (East Devon) team who provided superb support to Dad so that he could continue living at home.

It is hard not being able to be with my sisters physically in these days due to the realities of the pandemic. Yet amidst how it is, I also know peace and assurance from the fact Dad was not afraid of dying and what laid beyond. He had confidence due to his faith in Christ. In the midst of grieving, I am glad that Dad has passed into eternity where there are no lockdowns!

Love you Dad!

Andrew

How to get rich in 2021?

Photo by Mathieu Stern made available on the Unsplash website

How to get rich in 2021?

Recently, I was pondering on  a conversation I had well over twenty years ago. It was whilst I was still a school teacher. As with the start of each working day, I was walking across the car park to enter the building. I fell into conversation with someone who was not a regular member of the staff. They began telling me of all their plans to make more than enough money to retire by their early 40s! How they were working every hour of the day to do so. I can’t remember whether I said it or merely thought it – “Yes but you could drop dead before then!”

Looking back such a thought seems a bit harsh when I type it here. Yet I remember they seemed so driven and quite stressed amidst their master plan. Now I may have mis-interpreted where they were at of course. Perhaps they were fine, still had time for others and have had a very happy retirement for the past 15 years or so!

An almost infamous misquote is ‘money is the root of all evil’. Yet, in reality the words are:

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”

1 Timothy 6:10 New International Version

Another way of translating love here is ‘avarice’; it’s a bit of an old fashioned word but it means: ‘excessive or insatiable desire for wealth or greed’ (Merriam Webster)

It greed like this that lies behind all kinds of wrong! It can be a snare and an unrelenting master driving us, never to be satisfied. It can also be the cause of all kinds exploitation and injustice in the world. Typing that last sentence reminds me of some statistics I read in a book the other day:

“The top 1 percent now own around half of the world’s wealth up from 42.5 percent at the height of the Great Recession in 2008. The world’s 3.5 billion poorest adults, comprising 70 percent of the world’s working-age population, own 2.7 percent of global wealth.” from ‘How to be an Antiracist’ by Ibram X. Kendi

What helps us decide what is enough? Have we ever seriously asked ourselves that question?

With the wealth and possessions we gain, do we ever check if it is to the detriment of others?

Of course money is not wrong in and of itself. Money pays for all kinds of provisions in life and also can be one of the means by which to extend generosity to others.This is not an entry to have a rant against wealth or possessions. Though it can always be good to check, 

Do our possessions possess us?

Our approach to wealth and material things will, I think, largely reflect our values. Which leads me back to the thought in the title of this blog – how to get rich in 2021?

One of the books I read last year was ‘Free of Charge – Giving and Forgiving in a Culture stripped of Grace’ by Croatian theologian Miroslav Wolf. At one stage he writes of having a “rich life” and what this might look like:

“It surveys the past with gratitude for what it has received, not with annoyance about what it hasn’t achieved or about how little it has been given” (bold highlights by me).

This isn’t to deny hardships or loss nor is it a call not to mourn, where grieving needs to be. For some there are things in the past that are still very painful. I don’t think Wolf is suggesting we put on a cheery smile to gloss over all that has gone before. He writes from a place himself of personal suffering and also having journeyed with others. Yet he still urges gratitude not just in the now but for the past. That is something I admit I don’t always find easy to embrace.

Wolf continues,

“A rich life lives in the present with contentment. Rather than never having enough of anything except for the burdens others place on it, it is ‘always having enough of everything'(2 Corinthians 9:8), It still strives, but it strives out of satisfied fullness, not out of the emptiness of craving”

Living in the present with contentment. I don’t know about you but I am not going to claim that during these pandemic months I have always lived in the good of that. Yet contentment can be a real antidote against the need to always have more or from comparing ourselves to others and thinking we are missing out or that others must be better off than us.

In the same chapter as the ‘love of money’ quote, we can read these words,

“godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:6-8, New International Version)

Don’t misunderstand me – I do not think contentment equals indifference. It is not ignoring the challenges in our own lives or in the lives of those we know. Contentment is not about denying real concerns with this pandemic and other situations in the news such as the present tensions in the USA or the ongoing fallout of the fighting in Ethiopia. To be content is not to ignore such things, it is not choosing to avoid engaging. Rather I think learning contentment can free us up to live life more fully, to prayerfully be more present and available for others and less concerned with our getting.

I can’t say I have ‘arrived’ with this but I want to keep on the journey. I so realise that there can be all kinds of things that shout out against our being content!

Lastly Volf suggests,

“A rich self looks towards the future with trust. It gives rather than holding things back in fear of coming out too short, because it believes God’s promise that God will take care of it”

Volf roots this trust about the future firmly in his faith in God. A faith not disconnected from life’s reality but very much refined through circumstances. As Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote,

“The spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it.” (from ‘Making all Things New: an invitation to a spiritual life’)

Volf argues that trust in God about the future will manifest in being a giver rather than holding back due to fear of possible scarcity. Such trust is not about sticking our heads in the sand and crossing our fingers in some vague hope that everything will be fine in the years ahead. As I have written I think in a previous blog, hope in the Bible refers to something that is certain or perhaps better put, hope in someone who is certain. For Volf, that Someone is God – ultimately shown through the ‘rich life’ of Christ.

If you have read this far, how do you respond to such ideas about richness put forward by Miroslav Volf?

As we begin 2021, amidst this ongoing, challenging, pandemic time, what could a ‘rich life’ look like?

It is something I want to explore more.

Andy