One reason for light blogging in recent weeks has been pressure of work. But we have also had a fortnight’s holiday in East Looe, Cornwall. One night near the end of the two weeks I jotted down some of the highlights. Here goes:
Food – a supermarket that sells Dark – yes, dark! – Chocolate Hobnobs again.
The Smugglers’ Cott must be the best carvery we have ever visited. A choice of four meats. Not just beef, pork and turkey, but lamb, too. And the beef was offered in rare or well done joints. The kids asking for ‘a piece of crackling for my mum, please’.
Being introduced to the Baobab fruit at the Eden Project, especially when its powder is added to a Pineapple and Coconut Smoothie. The most refreshing drink of the summer, and apparently an energy booster. Will it help us keep up with Mark?
Kelly’s award-winning fish and chips. Beware the Trip Advisor reviews, many of which are based on the over-priced eat-in restaurant: the takeaway is excellent.
Moomaid ice cream: when a dairy farm made losses on milk sales, it decided to use it’s milk production differently. They tried cheese, and then struck gold with ice cream. Cornish ice cream is great anyway, but this beat anything else we tasted. No additives, so the choc mint crisp flavour is white, not green. Shame the Eden Project stopped selling it, because Moomaid wouldn’t drop their prices to uneconomic levels (they must have learned their milk-selling lesson, but how ethical and Fairtrade was the EP on this issue?).
Worship – Steve Wild trying everything to involve our children in worship at Riverside Church. Bringing Horace the Frog with him. Asking them to pick a favourite hymn (a lost cause when the church only used 1982’s Hymns and Psalms and still the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book). Purloining Jaffa Cakes for them from the refreshments area before the service ended. Mark hearing ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic‘ as an actual hymn for the first time, but nevertheless singing, ‘Glory, glory, Tottenham Hotspur‘.
Place – I’ll mention it again: the Eden Project. Stunning is an inadequate adjective. We want to return. Twice.
Looe itself: even with all the tourist shops, it retains an old charm. Fishing trawlers share harbour space with pleasure boats.
Family – aside from the four of us and Rebekah’s sand sculpture of the word ‘family’, the good was to see cousins. My cousin, his wife and son. Debbie’s cousin , his wife and children. The bad – my mum falling and fracturing her hip on our second day here, the burden falling on my sister and her family, and us powerless at two hundred miles’ distance.
Nineteen seventy: a terrible year for music. It was the year that songs by football teams took off. Not only did Chelsea FC inflict ‘Blue is the colour’ on the nation when they reached the FA Cup Final, the England team heading to Mexico to defend the World Cup assaulted our ears with ‘Back home’. Does anyone else have painful memories of those songs? (Not that as a Spurs fan I can be too superior, given the Chas and Dave songs my team put out in later years!)
Back home: Jesus is back home in this reading. He has come back from the eastern side of Lake Galilee, where people compromised Jewish faith with other influences. He’s on home territory. The fanboys are out – on this side of the lake he’s surrounded by a crowd, rather than suffering people asking him to leave as soon as possible, as happened when he cast the demons from the Gerasene demoniac into a herd of very non-Jewish pigs. Maybe you could say he is in a more pastoral than missional context here. (Although you’ll often be surprised how missionary you need to be in pastoral situations!)
Back home, people are in need and in desperation are showing the depth of their faith in Jesus. Both the woman with the issue of blood and Jairus, facing the death of his daughter, display extraordinary faith. I’d like us to explore these well-known stories with the goal of increasing our own faith in Christ, too.
On Thursday morning, we were walking the children into the school playground when Mark ran to follow Rebekah. However, he tripped up over Debbie’s foot and gashed both knees. He ended up in Injuries before he was in his classroom that morning. Although he had a plaster on for a few hours, we’ve tried as much as possible to let the air get to the wound, even though it has wept and left marks on bed blankets.
Rebekah has had her usual big-sister-cum-little-mummy concerns for her younger brother. However, we have had to tell her not to touch Mark’s knees! It’s just the latest example among many where as parents we’ve had to issue the ‘Don’t touch’ command. You can, I’m sure, think of many examples where you have had to say ‘Don’t touch’ to a child, because you are concerned about hygiene. They don’t understand about invisible germs, and you scream ‘Don’t touch’ in order to prevent the risk of infection.
Jewish faith had a strong ‘Don’t touch’ component to it, too. There were certain objects – or people with certain conditions – that you didn’t touch, for fear of spiritual infection as much as anything else. In our story, both the woman with the bleeding and the dying twelve-year-old girl fell into this category. The woman’s blood made her ritually unclean. Anyone touching her would also be unclean. The same was true of a dead body – and remember that by the time Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, the girl is dead. Neither should be touched. Not unless you wanted to be isolated for a period of days before having a check-up with the priest.
And what does Jesus do? He welcomes the touch of the bleeding woman, and he touches the hand of the dead girl. Jesus disregards any thought that he would become ritually contaminated, because he knows that through the touch, God has healed the woman and he will heal the girl. Jesus sees the power of God to heal as greater than any contaminating power. To Jesus, God’s power and love are not equal opposites to sin and darkness: they are greater. The ‘Don’t touch’ rules put both the woman and the girl outside the orbit of help and healing: Jesus, by embracing the need for touch, brings them within that orbit and they are made whole again.
This is good news! If there is something we feel unclean about, Jesus wants to touch it with healing. If it is something that ostracises us, or we think will ostracise us if others know about it, again Jesus wants to heal it with his touch. Perhaps there is a secret we harbour, one that we don’t feel we even dare share with friends at church, because we think it will lead to us being cut off socially from others or spiritually from God.
Obviously I have a privileged position as a minister, but it never ceases to amaze me just how many such secrets exist in congregations. Well, Jesus says, be ashamed no longer. Fear not. In his presence the risk of contamination is zero. Come to him, even if you tremble like the woman with the haemorrhage, because his touch will heal you. No longer need you struggle with shame or rejection. In the grace of God, wholeness is yours. Fear no more: Jesus’ only desire for you is healing.
This good news also creates a challenge for the church. If Jesus wants to touch untouchables with his love and healing, then we are called to be a community that accepts people. We truly need to be a safe space for folk. It might involve people who don’t know the usual social graces, or those whose background is unacceptable. It might be their appearance or some other socially unacceptable feature or condition.
By way of just one example, I read these words last Saturday in the TEAR Fund prayer diary:
Similar to many countries around the world, stigma is one of the biggest challenges for people living with HIV in Ireland. Pray for Tearfund partner ACET Ireland, who provide practical and emotional care for individuals affected by drugs. Pray that Christians in Ireland will demonstrate the unconditional love of Christ to all those affected and that local churches will become the safest places for people living with HIV.
Wow. What a challenge: ‘that local churches will become the safest places for people living with HIV’. But if our faith is in the healing touch of Jesus to restore those whose conditions have severed their social and spiritual links, then this is just the sort of aspiration a community centred on faith in Jesus will have.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever engaged in a practice such as Ignatian Bible Study, where you are invited to imagine yourself as one of the characters in a biblical story. Whether you’ve done that or not, perhaps you recognise that in certain stories you instinctively identify with one person.
In this story, I identify with Jairus. It’s not his position of influence and authority: it’s the fact that he is the father of a little girl. Ever since I became a parent, stories like this one tug at my heart strings much more than they used to. I can’t read about Jairus without thinking, what if it were my Rebekah? It gets me every time.
And I think that if I were Jairus, I’d be emotionally all over the shop when Jesus stopped to identify the woman who had touched him. Jesus, that’s nice but there’s no time to waste, I’d say. Every second counts if you’re to heal my daughter! Can’t you come back later and speak to this lady? Frankly, my desperation would reach warp speed.
But when the bearers of bad news come with the news that the little girl has passed away, Jesus says to Jairus, ‘Do not fear, only believe’ (verse 36). He’s got to be kidding, hasn’t he?
Except Jesus views the girl’s death in the light of what he is going to do (which is why he says she is only sleeping and why he later dismisses the mourners). And he takes Jairus on an extraordinary journey of faith. It’s one where Jairus holds together two things in tension: one is trust in Jesus, the other is that he unflinchingly stares at the darkness. His faith doesn’t lead him to ignore the darkness or pretend it isn’t there. And the darkness doesn’t extinguish his faith.
The other day, I read a piece by Michael Hyatt, the Chief Executive Officer of the American publishers Thomas Nelson. He was reflecting on the euphoria in many quarters when Barack Obama won the Presidential election last November, contrasted with the perilous economic situation the new President would inherit, typified by his election being followed by the biggest post-election decline in the American stock market. He said that the glass was both half empty and half full, and went on to say this:
In times like these, leaders must do two things simultaneously:
- Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.
- Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.
You see it again, just like Jairus: prevailing faith and an embrace of the darkness.
Hyatt went on to recount a story that the business guru Jim Collins tells in his famous book ‘Good To Great’. Collins refers to ‘The Stockdale Paradox’, and tells about a man called Admiral James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for eight years during the Vietnam War.
After his release, a reporter asked Admiral Stockdale, “How in the world did you survive eight years in a prisoner of war camp?”
“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that we would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event in my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
The reporter then asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” Admiral Stockdale replied,
“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come and go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Collins then goes onto state that an attribute of truly great companies and great leaders is that they are able to embrace simultaneously these twin truths of their current reality and their ultimate triumph.
Jairus had that kind of faith in the best form: a Christ-centred form. Jairus had a desperate plight and a deep faith. Neither escapism nor despair.
Is that what we need? Often I think it is. Perhaps it is a circumstance in our own lives – our health, or troubles facing a family member. Jesus calls us both to look into the abyss and also trust him for ultimate victory.
Perhaps it is about the state of the church. Numbers keep going down. We find it harder to cover every essential task in church life. Jesus calls us to admit honestly the difficulties we are in, and at the same time to trust him that we know the final outcome, which is not the obliteration of God’s people but the final victory of Christ. It may be getting darker, but we are heading towards the dawn.
It was the same for Jesus himself. On the one hand he embraced the darkness. The Gospels tell us he set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem. He warned his friends he faced betrayal, rejection, suffering and a cruel death. But he did so, knowing by faith in his Father he would prevail in the conquest of death, leaving behind an empty tomb.
Friends, we are the community of faith – faith in our crucified and risen Lord. Let us embrace that faith to receive the touch of Jesus that heals our woundedness and shame, and let us offer that touch to society’s rejects as we make church a safe space for the hurting.
And in crying out for that touch, we acknowledge we shall travel on a journey filled with tension. We shall hold in tension both the darkness and the deepest faith. It is the way Jesus himself walked. Let us have the courage to walk that way, too, knowing it is the road to his triumph.
I didn’t think I’d keep up my record of daily sabbatical blogs today. By tea-time, I was in bed, exhausted and with a dreadful headache. Several bad nights’ sleep had taken their toll, and adrenaline had kept me going until finally I kept dropping off on the sofa to the embarrassment of the family.
Tomorrow is Rebekah’s sixth birthday, and today was her party. She had chosen a pottery party with ten friends at local studion The Glazed Look. That was going to make for a quiet celebration, rather than exuberant running around and noisy games. When Debbie booked his for her at her request, we didn’t know how significant that was going to be.
Because, just after 6 am, Debbie woke me to say Rebekah had been awake three times in the night with ear pain. (I may be having trouble getting to sleep at present, but once I do, there’s little that would wake me.) She also had a discharge from her right ear. By 6:30, I was on the phone to the out of hours doctors’ service, getting an appointment at their clinic for 8:10 am. Just as I had taken Mark there a couple of weeks ag on a Saturday night, now I was taxi for my daughter.
With nobody in the queue, she was seen on time by a lovely, gentle Indian doctor, and out came the usual prescription for amoxicillin – just what we expected. The nearest pharmacy open at that time on a Saturday was at Tesco, so we drove there. Knowing Rebekah doesn’t like the usual banana flavour of amoxicillin, he prepared an orange version. However, that didn’t make any difference to her dislike. But with alternating doses of calpol and calprofen, at least she got through her party and crashed out a little bit this afternoon. How devastated she and we would have been, had she not been able to. So it’s a big thank you today to the NHS staff who coped so kindly and efficiently with a little girl’s distress.
Harking back to yesterday’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang reference, there’s a scene where Baron Bomburst comes into a room singing ‘Happy Birthday to me’. Yet he’s a married man with a fawning wife and an obsequious entourage.
There would have been the odd time in my past when I would have croaked ‘Happy Birthday’ to myself when I was single and fairly isolated. No longer.
In case you haven’t guessed, it’s my birthday today, and it has been a great joy to share simple pleasures with Debbie and the children. Nothing fancy or expensive, just the joy of family love. And Mastercard can’t buy that.
When I brought the assorted teas (Rebekah and me), coffee (Debbie) and warm milk (Mark) up first thing this morning, the children were on the starting line, desperate to open my presents – gifts they had only wrapped yesterday with Debbie’s help. What fun it was to see them rip the paper with almost as much abandon as if the presents were for them and they didn’t know what was inside.
Much as I love them, I was pleased they were both fit for school today. So after a mundane trip to B&Q for a carbon monoxide detector, Debs and I had coffee in a Wyevale garden centre and then headed for a pub she had seen advertised in the Essex Chronicle. She thought a print-out from their website would be enough to find them, but it was in the middle of nowhere and we soon ended up in the middle of a different nowhere. Oh well, resort to the Essex Street Atlas.
It was worth it. The Duck Inn was fabulous. They were advertising a ‘three courses for ten pounds’ offer. The menu was strictly limited, but the quality certainly wasn’t. For me, chicken pâté followed by fillet of salmon and finished with bread and butter pudding in vanilla cream. For Debbie, deep fried Brie, then roast chicken and finally assorted ice creams. The main courses had some beautifully cooked seasonal vegetables.
They also do a jazz night menu every few Friday evenings – three courses for fifteen pounds with live music. The normal á la carte menu is quite expensive, with main courses around fifteen to twenty pounds, but if you live anywhere near here, then it’s in the tiny hamlet of Newney Green and comes more thumbs aloft than even Paul McCartney can muster.
Back home and a surprise visit from a local friend before the school run. Debbie took Rebekah for her weekly swimming lesson but I stayed home with Mark in view of his ear infection. Then we finally had our Shrove Tuesday pancakes! Plus the children had insisted on a birthday cake. An extremely sickly chocolate one. I managed three mouthfuls. They enjoyed it, along with lighting the candles. Little Becky managed a picture or two on her camera.
Sabbatical work? Today? What do you think?
I am no Coronation Street fan. In fact, I’d say I was allergic to soaps. But this story in the Mail On Sunday heartened this Tottenham Hotspur supporter: apparently the current producer is a Spurs fan and has included all sorts of references to the Lillywhites in the Manchester-based soap.
Well, as someone who trained for the ministry in Manchester and endured all sorts of prejudice there because he was a Londoner, it’s nice to see this happening.
Oh, whoops, sorry, I’m a Christian. I remember: I should forgive.