Weblog

In this blog, I shall attempt to record my thoughts and feelings as I go through life.  Don't expect too much logic, great wisdom, or theological perfection.  I am liable to ramble over all sorts of topics, some overtly Christian, others rather less so.  See it as a stream of consciousness.  I hope and pray that you get something out of it.

How Are You?

How are you?

On the face of it, the question seems fairly innocuous - harmless even. But it can, and does, carry a lot of potential - potential for hurt as well as for connection.

Are you one of those people who always, automatically answers ‘How are you?’ with the standard, glib, phrase: ‘Fine thanks’?

I was one of those for a long time. But really, it’s almost completely meaningless - both the question and the answer carry about as much ‘weight’ as saying ‘Good morning!’ It’s just words; perhaps it breaks the ice; or perhaps, in some circumstances, it serves to strengthen the barriers between us, and to emphasise afresh the lack of understanding, of empathy, in many human contacts.

‘Fine, thanks’ in response to the enquiry can be an honest appraisal of one’s situation; it can also be (and often is) a blatant untruth, an outright lie. It can be a cover for ‘I really don’t want to tell you’ or ‘I don’t want to put you off.’

I stopped answering ‘I’m fine’ quite deliberately. I can’t remember now whether it was during a phase of life when I really was fine, but wanted to express it in a way that didn’t just sound like the stock, glib, unmeaning, phrase which conveys precisely nothing because it’s such a cliché, or whether it was during a phase when I was going through a tough time and was desperate for ‘connection’. I suspect the former, for reasons which may become clear further on in these musings.

Resurrection!

A random thought about the resurrection. Appropriate, since today is Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the resurrection.

I’m a physicist. As such, I’m used to the world functioning according to a set of established laws. We may not know all of them, but the world is, by and large, predictable. Things happen, and they obey the laws of physics, and I and other physicists are content - except about things which we haven’t explained yet, or devised laws which enable us to predict what’ll happen next time that thing, or something similar, happens.

There are exceptions to the laws which govern the way the world works. Arguably, one such notable exception is the resurrection of Jesus. People have tried to dismiss the resurrection as a figment of people’s imagination, and have tried to come up with all sorts of explanations as to why it couldn’t have happened. Actually, once you really dig into the arguments, and the evidence, it’s pretty hard to dispute that it happened. I’m not going to do that digging, here and now. Maybe another time. For now, please just accept (even if you find it personally difficult) that Jesus died, and that on the third day (the crucifixion happened on the first day - no mathematical concept of zero back then) he was resurrected… In that something very strange happened - his dead body came back to life, with ‘him’ ‘inhabiting’ it… Although His resurrected self was (or is?) strange in some of the ways in which it ‘interacts with' the world - He seems to be able to do things which don’t seem to us to be ‘normal’ - like passing through locked doors.

Am I my Brother’s Keeper?

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while - all this year in fact. Life has been a bit tough - which I might tell you about at some stage. But also, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and praying, and the stuff I was thinking and praying isn’t easy to write about in the relatively short format of a blog post. Maybe, sometime, when I’ve 'got my ducks in a row’, I’ll tell you about it in a series of posts.

Anyway, here’s a recent, simple, thought…

Starting with the story of Cain and Abel in the early part of the book of Genesis.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
“I don’t know, ” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Genesis 4:9

We won’t go into the detail of why Cain murdered Abel, but afterwards Cain tried to cover up his sin by claiming ignorance of Abel’s whereabouts. Of course Cain knew exactly where Abel’s body was. But when God approached Cain and asked where his brother was, Cain responded with this outright lie: “I don’t know.” He then compounded this by being sarcastic with God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

2017

Here is my now traditional ‘annual review’. 

This has been a year of contrasts. Physically, I have struggled a bit with ill-health. Largely with atrial fibrillation, latterly with atrial flutter. But it has to be said that it hasn’t slowed me down much. And the physical problems pale into utter insignificance alongside ‘The Good Stuff’ (™).

Where to start on ‘The Good Stuff’ (™)? 

Difficult! 

2016 was such a good year, it was hard to believe that another year could be even half as good. But 2017, though less ‘spectacular’ than 2016, has been even better in some ways.

I’m going to begin near the end, for reasons which make sense to me (but may not to you!). Towards the end of the year, I began to realise why I have always been so pessimistic about the future. The explanation was very simple and, now that I know what it is, I know that I simply have to let God ‘in’ to some more of the story of my early life. Having begun to do that, it’s getting easier to deal with; the pessimism is losing its grip on my thoughts. Sorry - I’m not ready, yet, to divulge the full story. One day, perhaps, once the ‘cure’ is complete.

Crucifixion (with hints of Resurrection)

I often threaten to post ‘works in progress’, and yet rarely do so. This isn’t exactly a ‘work in progress’, but it isn’t particularly logical. It’s all stuff I’ve been wanting to say, and it’s all sort of related to the same theme, but it doesn’t really lay out a logical argument. Here goes anyway, make of it what you will...

I think a lot of us, me included, often have a wrong-headed view of God's love. It's very easy to have a guilty conscience and to expect God to be vengeful and angry. What we have to do though, is to recognise that the game changed out of all recognition when Jesus died on the cross.

Take a moment to think about the crucifixion.

Think about the people you know and love. Which of them would you, when push came to shove, actually be prepared to die for - if any? And yet that is specifically what Jesus came to earth and became a human to do. It was a deliberate, pre-meditated, act. The personal cost was enormous - consider His mental wrestling match in the Garden of Gethsemane.

#MeToo

This post started out a week or so ago entitled “What’s wrong with men and masculinity?”, and was shaping up to be a sort of ‘whistle stop tour’ of what I think is going wrong with men at the moment - the widespread mental health issues and the related issue of being ‘macho’ or not appearing weak; how I don’t really understand how men relate to each other and, lastly, the issue of inappropriate behaviour towards women. But then the whole Harvey Weinstein and associated #MeToo thing broke cover. And I was, frankly, appalled. Appalled that men could behave so insensitively, so badly… And, seemingly, very often without even realising that they were causing anxiety or fear amongst women. I may return to the wider issues in a later post, but for now let’s stick with sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour towards women.

First of all, I’d like to issue a blanket apology to all my female friends and acquaintances. If I’ve ever acted in a way which seemed inappropriate (even a hug which went on a second too long) or frightening to you; or if I’ve ever said anything which made you feel threatened or which was inappropriate, I am truly, deeply, sorry. And if you want to take that up with me, face-to-face, I promise that I will (a) listen humbly and respectfully and (b) make amends if I can.

World Mental Health Day

Today is World Mental Health Day. I’m not a health professional; nor have I ever been diagnosed with any recognised mental health condition. But, like most folk who’ve survived fifty-odd years on this planet, I’ve been through some tough times. Life is good, now, but it hasn’t always been that way; I’ve had my share of tough times. Toughest amongst those was losing a child… And a lot of what’s written here is based on that particular experience of grief.

I thought that I’d chat a little, in my non-expert way, about what has helped me in tough times. And what didn’t help!

I think that, top of the list for me, are dependable friends. Folk who will just be there. Tough times can be incredibly lonely. Firstly, you’re trying to cope with the most awful, gut-wrenching feelings of grief, or other pain - it can feel as though you’re totally alone. And there are a lot of people, even close friends, who really don’t know what to say, or to do; so they say, or do, nothing - they simply disappear. And then you feel even more isolated. The sense of isolation can be almost as painful as the grief itself. Avoiding hurting friends only serves your needs.

Cycles of Life

I went for a walk this morning, and came across this ploughed field, which made me think about the Christian life.

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Jesus was born, grew up, was executed, died and was buried. On the third day He rose again to new life. Christians believe that he is the ‘first fruits’:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 1 Corinthians 15: 20-23

That’s what this ploughed field reminded me of - whatever was growing there before has died and been buried. In the spring new life will come, in the form of a new crop.

When we become Christians, and are baptised we are, symbolically, ‘slain’ in the waters of baptism and ‘resurrected’ when we arise out of the water. And that, supposedly, is that - we go on into our life in the Kingdom of God:

Intimacy, mystery and pain

I have been praying for friends whose Christian journeys are particularly tough right now. And I am reminded again of the mystery and intimacy of God, and the strangeness of the Christian journey.

In the early days of Christianity, its adherents were known as 'Followers of the Way', and that is (or ought to be) our experience - that we are on a journey. We're not entirely sure where we're going - indeed, I'm not sure that the destination is important - the journey is the important part.

Christianity has to be lived; the journey has to be undertaken to comprehend what it's about. Without setting your feet upon the way, you cannot truly begin to understand it. Seeing it from the outside is not to experience it; you can only do that by setting foot on the road.

As I journey along this road - sometimes steep, rocky and perilous; at other times flat, smooth and safe - I become more aware of God's constant presence alongside me.

I have also gradually become more aware of His 'otherness' - how utterly sublime and incomprehensible He is... But if I could understand Him, He would not be God - He would be a construct, an idol of my own making. He is mystery. He is too 'other' to comprehend.

Rejoicing Again

I’ve found it really hard to write this post - it’s been ‘gestating’ for days, but I just couldn’t figure out how to say what I wanted to say - or how much to say. Some of what’s happened lately has been quite emotional. That doesn’t usually stop me, as long-term followers of this blog know only too well, but this time it’s very personal and precious, and I wasn’t sure how much of it, if any, I was prepared to share with the wider world.

A couple of weeks ago, we went on holiday to Scotland. We rented a little cottage near to Pitlochry, and spent a very relaxing week. One thing I was looking forward to was the possibility of meeting up with Izzy, who doesn't live too far away.

My mobile phone rang at 7:30am on Thursday morning, waking me up. 

Izzy!! 

She was full of apologies for waking me, but hey - after 33 years, I wouldn't have cared if she'd rung at 3:00am! It was lovely to talk to her. The long and short of the conversation was whether would we like to extend our holiday by one night, and stay at her house?

My Life Verse(s)

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At the 7:00pm service at St Tees we have just begun a new sermon series entitled ‘My Life Verse’. 

First of all, what is a ‘Life Verse’? Simply put, it’s a verse of scripture which ‘speaks' deeply to you - one which ‘sums up’ your spiritual life, or which reminds you of something of which you need reminding frequently!

Some people go to quite some lengths to choose one. I think there are about 31,000 verses in the bible, so finding one which ‘suits’ could be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I imagine that it could be quite a task.

I’m fortunate, in that mine was chosen for me, many, many, years ago. In those days, it wasn’t referred to as a ‘Life Verse’, but as a ‘Baptismal Promise’. Maybe some churches still call them that. Getting back in touch with Izzy reminded me of the circumstances of acquiring mine - though the verses themselves have never been far from me.

I became a Christian in 1980, and was baptised in 1981 by Izzy’s late father, our pastor. He was a huge man - once he’d got hold of you, there was no escape! After I’d dried off and put on dry clothes, I emerged back into the main body of the church, and was met by a lot of smiling, congratulatory, faces. One in particular stood out - I can’t remember his name now, but he was a dapper little man - very neat in a dark suit. He was clutching a bible and said that he had a 'baptismal promise' for me, which I was to memorise. He quoted it from the King James bible (because that was what our Pentecostal church used), and that’s how I memorised it:

Rejoicing

I have two, linked, unfortunate habits - of overthinking things, and of overcomplicating things. 

This is a simple story of love, joy and blessing, which I have attempted to tell twice already this week, but have ended up binning each time because I made it far more complicated than it is. So let me try again - 'third time lucky', or some such.

Once upon a time, I was young. Hard to believe now I know, but I was. And life wasn't particularly great. In fact, most of the time it was fairly horrid, with a few good bits in it (sort of like a really cheap hot cross bun - dry, tasteless and with nothing like enough juicy, fruity, bits). Into that life came a young lady, called Isobel. She was very, very, kind to me; gracious and loving. Anyway, to cut a very long story short, she was a Christian, and she was responsible, almost single-handedly, for my conversion to Christianity.

She was, from my side at least, the best friend I'd ever had. We stayed in touch while we were students - writing letters, and seeing each other during university vacations; but we lost touch around the time I married Linda and she went off to Spain as a missionary.

Universalism?

Thought common in Evangelical circles, it seems to me, tries to erect a cage around God. 

How so? 

Because it seems to say that there is only one correct way to think, and only one right way to believe; it places one ‘correct' interpretation on scripture and asserts that this is the only correct interpretation. In so doing it tries to make God fit in a particular box, and denies the possibility of God doing things differently - by doing so it tries to constrain Him to stay in the box it has constructed...

The box is also constructed in such a way that only a limited number of people - those who ‘profess’ (think, say, and do) the 'right' things (as defined by those 'inside the box') - are on the inside… All others are therefore condemned.

This seems both supremely arrogant and very limited. It’s limited in that it's a little like viewing a landscape from within a tunnel - what you see is beautiful, but the vista is very constrained - literally 'tunnel-vision'. But with a little forward movement, one emerges from the tunnel and realises that the vision is a full 360° of loveliness. There are many more than just one view of God. Other Christian traditions are just as valid - and, indeed, often combine with our own to afford one a better, wider, view of God and His love. How can we say otherwise, without opening up the possibility that 'those outside' might say the same of our beliefs with equal validity?

Hatred - Again

Manchester. Yet another terrorist 'incident'. Tragic, on all counts. I cannot begin to understand the mentality of someone who could even contemplate such an act. It is far too 'alien' a concept for me to begin to grasp it, let alone understand why someone would think that killing 22 people and maiming 59 others, to say nothing of the countless invisible mental 'injuries' it will have caused, was a good idea.

To me, all life is precious. In Genesis it says:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:27

What that means is that each of us, somewhere, somehow, bears a 'family resemblance' to God... The God who is love itself. Those words tell me that each person is, in some sense, almost a 'theophany' or appearance of God... We can, if we look closely enough, see the 'imprint' of the divine in each being. Sometimes, it is very well hidden; sometimes it is obvious - the latter are often thought of as 'saints'. But what it means to me, is that each life is precious, because of that image which is part of each and every person's being. Whether I like it or not, my enemies are also 'made in the image of God'.

Angels, Part 2

Today I am feeling very sad. Our Iranian friends are being split up and moved to another town. I really don't understand why. 

They have fast become much-loved members of our fellowship of faith. Many tears were shed at our 7:00pm service last night when it was announced. It seems so cruel. They have been through so much, and were just becoming ‘settled’, and now they’re being uprooted again.

In another context we were reminded last night of the first two verses of Hebrews chapter 13:

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

That led me to think about one of my favourite passages of scripture - Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah are visited by three 'men' - who turn out to be angels (at the very least), and quite possibly an appearance of the three members of the Godhead...

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

Angels, Part 1

I have ‘sat on’ this post for a few weeks, unable to decide whether or not to post it. Obviously, I have decided now...

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) says: 

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

A Revelation...

…And a new sense of freedom.

You wouldn’t know it from reading this blog, which I update only rarely, but I write constantly. It’s how I order my thoughts; it’s how I 'make sense’ of new ideas; it’s how I ‘fit them’ into my world view; it’s how I learn lessons. It’s also ’therapy’ - I find that writing about something painful helps me get it ‘out there’ - out of my mind - so that I can examine it dispassionately, and it helps me ‘marshall my thoughts’ for when I want to tell a real person about whatever’s bothering me. And, if I’m honest, it helps me to connect with God in new ways. 

As well as this blog, I keep a ‘therapeutic journal’ - which is all sorts of ‘private’ stuff - things I need to get ‘out of my head’. Most of it goes no further, but some of it gets shared, often in modified form, with my close confidants. Frequently I also write short ‘essays’ which often sit, unfinished, unpolished, on my various electronic writing devices. Recently I have also started to keep a ‘spiritual log’ - where I am writing down ideas, thoughts, revelations from God, which are connected to my relationship with Him. The latter is, gradually, taking over in importance from the ’therapeutic journal’. Perhaps that’s sign that I’m maturing in the faith? Who knows! The ‘essays’ that don’t get ‘transmogrified' into blog posts are tending to end up in the log now, rather than existing as ‘orphans’, alone and unloved in the vast empty spaces of my hard drives.

Who is my Neighbour?

Someone I know has just posted a hateful video on his Facebook feed - it 'features' a British right-wing extremist 'ranting' about Muslim immigrants in 'our' country. All the usual stuff about how hate-filled 'they' are (without an inkling of the irony of what he's saying), and how 'they' ought to be (at best!) 'sent back to where they came from'.

By way of contrast, this Lent, a friend is leading a series of three 'seminars' on "Migrants, Asylum Seekers, Refugees: Some Biblical Perspectives on People on the Move."

The juxtaposition of these two things in my mind has set me thinking. There's an awful lot I could say, offering all sorts of different perspectives. But please allow me to tell you a story - a story which I hope will reveal some of my thoughts and feelings on the matter.

Some months ago, three young ladies of Middle Eastern origin, 'turned up on the doorstep' of our church. They were, to use the current pejorative term, ‘migrants’ or 'asylum seekers'. They were also seekers after something else. In their very broken English, they managed to communicate the idea that they wanted to leave Islam behind, and to embrace Christianity. Which, over a period of weeks, they did, being baptised and confirmed by the bishop at our annual service of baptism and confirmation. They originate from Iran - as do many 'asylum seekers'. To my mind, they are 'seekers of sanctuary' (which I hope sounds kinder, and has less negative connotations - despite meaning the same thing!)... In other words, they simply want to live somewhere where they are safe, and where they are free - free to worship the God they want, rather than being liable to the death penalty for changing their religion - as is, officially, the case in Iran (though I don't think any women have actually been executed for the crime?) - where is the harm in that?

A kinder, gentler, God?

Recently, my bible reading has been more 'in depth' than in the past. Specifically, when reading the New Testament, I have been following the cross-references to the Old Testament, and reading those passages as well. 

What I'm about to say is probably 'old hat' to anyone else who has done the same exercise, but it has given me a fresh insight into how Jesus looks on the Old Testament. I think it's instructive how He (later followed by the likes of Paul) quotes from, and reinterprets, the Old Testament scriptures. For instance, in Luke 4:18-19, when Jesus sets out his mission by reading Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue in Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
.

He goes on to say that this scripture was fulfilled in him. But it is notable that he chooses not to complete verse 2 of Isaiah 61, which says: “and the day of vengeance of our God.

St. Valentine’s Day

Today is St. Valentine’s Day. It's a great day for those 'in love', but an awful day for some folks...

This prayer is thanks to Mike Peatman, who posted it on Facebook. Somehow it resonated strongly with me - I’ve never been a fan of Valentine’s day.

We pray today for those in love, those off love, those in between. And for those who are lonelier today than other days.
We pray today for those whose frozen hearts cannot love & those who feel so unlovely that they can't love themselves.
We pray for the elderly man gazing today at a black and white photograph in a silver frame of a wedding in another time.
We pray for the mum, who quietly bought herself flowers yesterday. And the boy who dared to send a card but didn't get one back.
King of love come comfort and forgive us this cheap, gaudy, desperate, isolating thing we have made of you. Amen.

Pete Greig - Valentine’s Prayer

Thinking of Mike, and my Mum, and others I know who've lost the love of their lives. Those who've never felt loved. And those who've never received a Valentine's card. I was that boy - I never got one back.


Copyright © Phil Hendry, 2016