​More than just words…

Faithwriters.com Challenge – 25th May 2017 – Topic: Texting – Advanced
Christians should be careful when texting. I don’t just mean in exchanging messages with friends, though many of us have regretted a response sent in haste that was misunderstood. Rather, I have in mind the occasions when we share a prayer or Bible verse intended to support or encourage a fellow traveller on the difficult journey of life. 

Certain key promises in the Bible, taken out of context, are offered as panaceas for all kinds of ills. For example, “I will restore to you the years the locust hath eaten” (Joel 2:25, KJV) is used to imply God will compensate for a loss of wealth or relationship. But this prophecy anticipates a restoration after God’s warning of punishment for sin and a subsequent repentance by the Israelites.

A more important reason for exercising caution in quoting Scripture verses is that the “Word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Used correctly, it will both challenge and empower us. In his Pentecost sermon, Peter quotes Psalm 118:22 “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” (NRSV). Jesus used this verse of himself in prophesying his death and resurrection. Some years later, Peter applied this verse to the believers who, having been rejected and persecuted for their faith, will become “living stones” in building up God’s spiritual house, the Church. 

If we apply this verse to the 21st Century, who would be the rejected? Depending on our situation, we might include (or exclude) the poor, uneducated, unemployed, young people, single parents, dementia sufferers, refugees and asylum seekers, or any other group or person that does not fit our spiritual ideal. Taking Peter’s analogy one step further, why can we not see such “rejected stones” filling key roles in our Christian fellowships? 

Scripture should be handled carefully, for if we approach it in true humility, “it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12b), often leaving us unsettled and in need of transformation from the inside out.

So next time you are tempted to quote a favourite Bible verse, remember: Christians should be careful when texting.

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A faint glimmer of purpose

Faithwriters.com Challenge – 18 May 2017 – Topic: Dull

“I hate Maths, it’s so boring!” Sarah slams her rucksack down on the kitchen table and grabs a cola from the fridge. “Why is it the last subject on a Friday afternoon? It ruins the weekend.” She pops the ring pull and slumps into a chair, taking loud slurp of drink.

“I always enjoyed maths,” replies Dad from the corner by the oven. “What have you been learning?”

“We’ve been revising for the exams next month. A different Topic in Maths every day: fractions, decimals, factorials, simultaneous equations, and something named after an Italian bloke; Flippin’ nasty, we call him.”

“That’ll be the Fibonacci sequence. So what’s the problem with learning all this stuff.”

“Well, it’s no use in real life, is it?”

“Isn’t it? Dinner’s ready, go and call the others. And wash your hands.”

Five minutes later, Mum, Simon and Sarah are seated round the table. Dad puts a plate of smiley potato faces and a bowl of beans on the table, and brings over a pizza cut into six slices.

“So, there are six slices here and four of us. How much do we get each?”

“Duh! One and an half slices,” Sarah replies, rolling her eyes.

After Dinner, Sarah approaches her Dad. “Can I have my pocket money? I want to get a magazine from the shop.”

“How much are you expecting?”

“£5, of course.” The eyes roll again.

“But I bought you a cake on Tuesday and you said you’d pay me back. That was £1.55. How much is left.”

Sarah looks at the floor. “£3.45, I guess.”

Dad hands over £2.45, then tosses the other pound coin in the air and traps it on the back of his hand. “Heads or tails.”

Sarah smiles at the game. “Heads.”

Dad reveals the coin. “Tails. I get to keep it.”

“Best of three,” Sarah shouts.

Two more attempts come up tails. Sarah groans, and turns to leave. But Dad calls her back and tosses her the coin. Sarah leaves the room with a grin.

Next day, the family sets off in the car, all wearing the same football tops. Sarah and Simon hang their scarves out of the window. As they get nearer to the stadium, Dad asks Sarah, “Remind me again, do we need to win today to take the championship?”

“I’ve told you already. If we win, we get the cup. But if we draw, and City win, they get the cup. And if City draw, we would need at least three goals to take first place.”

After the match, lined up with the rest of the fans to cheer the new champions, Dad points to a weed beside the road. “Don’t you think t’s fascinating, the way the stem divides to create that umbrella of tiny flowers?”

Sarah grunts and looks back to see the team bus departing. They head for the nearest burger bar to celebrate.

Monday morning, Sarah appears for breakfast and dumps her rucksack on a chair. “Boring Maths again this morning.”

“What were the topics again?” Dad asks with a smile.

“Fractions, decimals, factorials, simultaneous equations and Fibonacci sequence.”

“Why don’t you think of them as pizza, pocket money, heads and tails, league tables and flower stems? That should be much more interesting.”

Sarah frowns, and then a slow smile spreads across her face. When she leaves for school, there is almost a spring in her step.

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God is keeping his soldiers fighting!

320px-rock_27em_sock_27em_robots_game

Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots – photo by Lorie Shuall at Wikimedia.org

Submitted to Faithwriters.com Challenge, Intermediate – 10 May 2017 – Topic: Agree to Disagree – Awarded 1st Place

I recently saw again a toy I remember from childhood: a boxing ring with two robots in red and blue. Players controlled the fighters through joysticks at the side of the ring. The aim was to hit the opponent’s robot in order to make his head pop up, or to “knock his block off,” as we say in England.

This fighting talk has become common in the political arena, with politicians trading personal insults, especially approaching elections. Policies come second in the debates, and many poorer people feel they come last in the war of words.

Sadly, the same can be true of the church. Despite decades of work building ecumenical relations, there is a steady stream of new denominations or individual preachers who are happy to condemn another group for false belief or practice.

Even within congregations, it can be easy to label people for what for what they do “wrong”, and so create a battle or at least unsettle the peace. An early Salvation Army song seems appropriate in some congregations: “God is keeping his soldiers fighting!”*

But rather than contests over what type of music we should sing, which is the “authorised” version of the Bible, and the nuances of atonement theology, William James Pearson had in mind to “tear Hell’s throne to pieces, and win the world for Jesus.

Quarreling among believers is nothing new – it began with the twelve and carried on into the early church. Paul advised Timothy, his young protégé, not to “have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” (2 Timothy 2:23-24 NIV)

For a few years, I belonged to a regional group of ministers from a variety of churches who shared a broadly charismatic outlook. We would often joke with one about the number of saints his church venerated, with another that he needed to get baptised and take communion, and with a third about the arcane processes of his denomination. Yet we were all secure in the mutual recognition of our salvation and calling in Christ.

In our increasingly tense and nervous world, people need to hear the voice of peace from the church. So let us graciously agree to disagree amongst amongst ourselves, but unite in fighting the Devil and presenting the gospel of reconciliation to a fragile and broken world.

*Words William James Person (1832-1892), Public Domain. – no. 953 in The Song Book of The Salvation Army, 2015 edition, London: The Salvation Army, International Headquarters.

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Infectious confession

(This piece was originally written for the Faithwriters.com Challenge – Topic:bug – but I missed the deadline. It is dedicated to the Newland Concert Brass and its Musical Director Paul McKelvie)

Hi, my name is Steven and I have a contagious disease: a serious, long-term infection for which there is no known cure. I can’t be certain when I caught it because the manifestations have changed over time. My first memories of the bug go back to early childhood, and I have not been free of it since then.

I can recognise an outbreak by the onset of noises in my head, which often translate into humming aloud, a rhythmic bobbing of the head and random smiling. A prolonged episode may also include waving of the hands, and in extreme cases jigging or even dancing. In public spaces such as restaurants, the physical displays may be surpressed, but a discrete peek under the table will reveal rhythmic jerking or tapping of the foot.

Thankfully, I have discovered therapy groups that enable me to “let it out”. My current group consists of around 25, most of whom find release through blowing raspberries into metal tubes, whilst a few strange individuals enjoy hitting animal skins with wooden sticks or clashing metal disks together.

In order that no one is overpowered, an expert therapist coordinates the weekly sessions, providing scripts of exercises and synchronising the results by means of a short white wand that he waves in front of us. From time to time members leave the group, perhaps due to moving house or to seek another group more suited to the degree of their infection. Hence we are always seeking new members to ensure a good mix of expressions and to maximise mutual support.

If blowing raspberries is not your thing, there are groups that make noises by plucking or scraping various kinds of wires or cords, blowing through plant stems or even squeezing a bag under their arm. Some groups focus on ordering their noise whilst others are more spontaneous. Whatever form your infection takes, there is a self-help group for you.

We have discovered that some people will pay to listen to our noise making, and will even cheer us when we finish. I’m convinced they are fellow sufferers who have not yet overcome the denial stage. There are even contests in which the sufferers who manifest the greatest control over their symptoms receive a prize. The worst sufferers may even compete at national or international level.

I used to feel embarrassed by my symptoms. But since I embraced my affliction it has been turned into something beautiful that inspires others, which gives me a real buzz. I would urge you not to be afraid, but to admit to your infection and find a new freedom in life as I have done.

Thank you for listening.

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Twelve not so good and true.

In The Verdict of Twelve, Raymond Postgate lays bare the awful truth that our precious judicial system is based on a myth. As the bored Clerk of Assize begins to swear in the jury for a murder trial, we are given a glimpse into the past and present of “twelve good men and true” who will decide the fate of Rosalie van Beer, widow, who stands accused of murder. Hidden behind the seemingly innocuous faces lie violence, intrigue, obsession, anxiety, fear and doubt. 

To add to the confusion, Postgate relates the tale of the death from the points of view of the various characters, who all possess quirks of personality that call into question their motivation if not their sanity. Add in the narrow, purposeful focus of the counsel for the defence and the reader soon begins to wonder if anything approaching the truth can ever be reached with such ill assorted players.

Raymond Postgate, father of Oliver Postgate who wrote several successful children’s books and TV series, was a successful journalist, and later launched The Good Food Guide. Of his three attempts at crime fiction, only The Verdict of Twelve enjoyed any success. His shrewd observations on human nature and interactions, constructed in a manner to lead the reader to a particular conclusion, made this volume  a recognised classic in the field. As the Clerk swears in each juror, we learn something of their story and glimpse their fears and prejudices. Counsel for the Prosecution rises and we are teated to a retelling of the accused’s story that is just short of tabloid in presentation. Yet the defense has another interpretation, for which they frantically seek justification  (evidence would be too strong a word). Witnesses flip-flop in their opinions under examination and cross – examination and the jurors retire,  mostly baffled by the whole process. It falls to the foreman to guide them through the process of making an “impartial” juudgement.

Postgate, a staunch Marxist and one-time member of the Communist Party does not hide his anti-establishment views, yet it is in the frailties of the people that these are made manifest, as though the ordinary man will bring down the system almost by default. This is never clearer than in the Postscript, when Postgate reveals information that calls into question the whole process.

I spotted this book in a shelf of British Library Classics, and have thoroughly enjoyed it. I would have been fascinated to read more of Postagate’s cleverly expressed observations on our great institutions. 

Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate is published by The British Library, with an introduction by Martin Edwards. ISBN 978-0-7123-5674-9

(Edited to correct minor errors)

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​Children should not be for sale

Faithwriters.com challenge entry – 16-Mar-17 – Intermediate – Topic: Childhood
Childhood is big business. Programmes on children’s television channels are interspersed with high pressure advertisements for the latest toys, clothes or even holiday destinations. Commercial caterers vie for contracts to feed schoolchildren, with vending machines for those snacks between meals. Educational priorities are determined by the need to provide workers to improve the economy. Even health is montised; obesity in Western countries is a problem because of the future cost to the health service. It seems that our children are only as important as the money they can earn, spend or save. As a consequence,  some people consider that if they provide for the material needs of their children, they have done well.

This is  not the attitude we find in then Bible. When his disciples tried to prevent children interrupting a sermon, Jesus said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ (Matthew 19:14 NIVUK) Jesus blessed the children for their own sake, not because of any economic worth they might bring. 

An English local newspaper recently reported that parents were moving to the area to enter their children in the best schools,  then moving away again. Yet a recent study found no evidence that attending a school with higher grades necessarily improved the long term outcomes for the majority of children. More important factors included the level of parental support for the child and involvement in the life of the school. The Daily Mile is being introduced to many UK schools not only because it will reduce the costs of remedying obesity in the future, but because healthy children are more alert and engaged with their lessons. And families that eat and play together are demonstrably happier and less likely to break up.

None of these models of behaviour costs money but they do require a change of attitude. The Bible teaches that children are a gift from God to be treasured and nurtured for their own sakes. Perhaps if we adopted the same view and invested time and energy in the children we encounter, we would reduce some of the problems of our society. Who knows, we may even find that we enjoy ourselves more.

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Why should I do it?

Faithwriters.com Challenge – 9th March 2017 – Intermediate – Topic: Onerous – 2nd Place

Six months ago I left behind congregational leadership to take on a new role within my denomination. I had asked for I change, but did not bargain on the dramatic impact it would have on me. At times I feel overwhelmed by the plethora of demands, though my predecessors tell me it takes at least 12 months to adjust to the role, so there is some hope of relief.

In the meantime, there has been an unpleasant side effect to this tsunami of new experiences: activities that used to be a pleasure have become tiresome. My weekly writing challenge feels like a chore, language learning demands too much brain power and when preparing to preach I feel tired and weary; even my music making only lifts my spirits for a short time.

I feel a little bit like the Israelites who hung up their harps and cried “how can we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4). The harvest for doing good (Galatians 6:9) seems too distant to be a realistic motivation to keep going.

Yet into this dry and barren space come the refreshing words of Eddie Askew, missionary director, writer, painter and perhaps the voice of God to me. He comments on Psalm 137 that the Israelites assumed God was only present in Jerusalem. Have I inadvertently made the same mistake in an organisational sense? Am I looking at my situation as a job I chose or a calling from God? If the former, I had better shape up or ship out. But if God has called me, then my guiding principle should be “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ ” (Isaiah 30:21).

Perhaps then the myriad things I have committed myself too in work or leisure will cease to be onerous tasks and become stepping stones a greater purpose for me, for my church and for God’s Kingdom.

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In a bit of a jam.

Faithwriters.com Challenge – 16th February 2017 – Topic: Jam – Intermediate: 2nd Place

blackcurrant_jamMaria found her Mummy kneeling on the kitchen floor surrounded by rubbish. “Mummy, what are you doing?” she asked.

“I’ve lost my wedding ring,” Mummy replied. “I put it on the window sill when I was baking yesterday, and now I can’t find it. I’ve looked all over the house.”

“But why are you looking in the rubbish if it was on the window sill?”

When Mummy looked up Maria thought she looked sad. “I thought I might have knocked it on the floor and swept it up with the rubbish.” Mummy started to put the rubbish back in the bin. Maria knelt down to help.

That night, Maria heard crying from Mummy’s bedroom. She got out of bed and made her way to the other bedroom. Quietly opening the other bedroom door she peeped inside.

“Why are you crying Mummy?” she asked.

“Because I miss Daddy.”

Maria sat on the bed and took hold of Mummy’s hand. “I miss Daddy too, but he’s up in Heaven and he wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

“I know.” Mummy snuffled. “But he gave me that ring when we got married and it reminds me of him.”

“Never mind, Mummy. We can ask God to help us find it.”

At breakfast a few days later, whilst Mummy was making coffee, Maria called out, “Mummy, Mummy!”

“What is it, Maria?” Mummy asked.

Maria held up a sticky red lump

“It landed on my toast when I was putting jam on it,” Maria replied.

When Mummy washed off the jam under the tap, in her hand was a bright gold circle.

“I think your ring got in a bit of a jam, Mummy,” said Maria. And they both laughed.

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Busy enough

Faithwriters.com challenge entry – 9th February 2017 – Intermediate: 2nd Place– Topic: Busy (fiction)

I soon got tired of hearing “I don’t know how I found time to work; I’m always so busy”. Retirement hadn’t worked out quite how I expected. We’d done all the usual things: meeting up with old friends, cruising the Caribbean, visiting our daughter in America to see the grandchildren, and finally fixing the door that didn’t shut properly.

But after a lifetime of travelling for my work, I had no hobbies, no social life and no family nearby. When I’d been hanging around the house for six weeks, my wife said (rather rudely, I thought), “Why don’t you get yourself out of here and find something to do?” So I put on my coat and hat and set off for the High Street.

There was nothing I wanted to buy, and drinking coffee alone didn’t appeal, so I went into the library to read the newspaper in a quiet corner. On the Community Notice board by the door a small flyer caught my eye. “Volunteer drivers needed. Flexible hours, expenses paid. Please phone if interested.”

Three months and twenty passengers later I’m loving my new “job”. My shyness isn’t an issue because the elderly passengers often just chatter away, appreciative of rare company. I get all the details of their aches and pains as I take them to hospital, and a verbatim report of the diagnosis on the way home. For the younger ones with cancer, singing along to the radio sometimes helps. I had to walk one lady into the day care centre and ended up staying one day a week. Some of the people have amazing stories to tell, but you have to watch them or they cheat at the board games.

I haven’t quite started reciting the awful phrase; my wife does like me to be home for tea and we’ve joined the local bowls club together. So I’m happy to say that in my retirement I’m neither bored nor exhausted; just busy enough!

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An unintended outcome

Faithwriters.com challenge entry 19th January 2017 – Intermediate – Topic: Brand – 1st Place

Their arrival passed unnoticed; the rustle of the bamboo blind no different to any other breezy night. A tap on my shoulder just like my little brother. “Go away Raheed,” I mumbled, shrugging the hand away, my eyes firmly closed. But the touch came again, more insistent. I rolled over, a curse forming on my lips. A firm hand, not Raheed’s, clamped over my mouth, pressing my head into the lumpy mattress.

My eyes flew open searching for a face, but finding only a shadow among shadows. A badly wound turban completely obscured the head, apart from two eyes almost as dark as the midnight sky. I squirmed like a chicken in the butcher’s hands, and sought a finger with my teeth until a tiny glint of light revealed a knife which quickly moved to my throat.

Raheed was not so easy to subdue. Young, agile and full of life (except when sleeping) he almost escaped from a second figure leaning over his bed. But his small size was his downfall; the attacker scooped him up with one hand and clamped the other over his mouth, though not before Raheed sank his teeth into the man’s thumb.

Moments later, outside our two room hut, we found our parents in a similar plight. My father must have put up a fight; he was lying on the ground, the worn black boot of his assailant pressing firmly on his chest. Father’s face was as set as stone, but to me his eyes betrayed his pain. In contrast, my mother stood to one side, straight as a spear, back to her guard and head held high.

For the first time, my attacker spoke. “You will come with us and give us no trouble or we will kill you, starting with the boy.” He waved his knife at Raheed, still wriggling in the arms of his captor and grunting uselessly into the hand that gagged him.

Father was hauled to his feet and we set off towards a path through the trees. In the darkness we tripped on roots and stumbled over rocks until we reached a clearing with a fire in the centre, shining on more captives guarded by black-clad figures.

Perched on a tree stump sat an old man in a white robe with grey hair escaping his turban. “You have left the true faith and are blasphemers,” he growled, “and will be marked as such.”

One of the men near the fire brought over a metal rod that glowed red at one end. Father stood still as the hot metal burned into his forehead. When the rod was removed, a letter was seared into his flesh. “With this brand, everyone will know that you have left the faith. Your life will be over!”

One by one, each person received the mark. Some cried out and pleaded to be spared; others received it silently, though it must have been painful. When my turn came, I bit my lip and fought back tears; Raheed let out a yell. Afterwards we were taken back home, but our small house had been destroyed in our absence.

Next day, mother went to market to buy food, but no one would serve her. Father went to the fields to work, but he was turned away. Children laughed at me and Raheed and threw stones at us in the streets. We had to leave our village and look for a new home.

We spent that day and the next going from village to village, looking for food, water, shelter. But in each place we were sent away.

We thought the next village was abandoned. But a voice called out, “Brothers, welcome.” A tall skinny man stepped out of the shadowy doorway into the sunshine. I gasped as I saw the brand on his forehead. Gradually people emerged from every house, each with the same letter marked on his forehead.

We made our home in an empty house and ate our first proper meal for three days. The people were so friendly; soon we felt part of the community. Everyone in the village worked together and shared what they produced. It became a much happier place than our old village.

I wondered what the man who branded us for being blasphemers would think if he discovered that, instead of ending our lives, the mark had helped to give us a new life that was better than the old one.

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