NEW YEAR IRRESOLUTIONS
Dear friends, enemies and everyone in between,
I have made a vow to return to my habit of writing a monthly letter on my website for at least a year. I like doing it, so it is possible that I might honour my vow. This year I entered the official state of being biblically dead, so unless my bodily state catches up with my scriptural allotment of seventy years, there is a possibility that my messages will continue to afflict you until next January. If this turns out to be an empty space - please don’t watch it.
Do I still have things to say? Yes, I certainly do. This morning for instance - well, let me start at the beginning. Yesterday Bridget and I agreed that I would use this day to write my first website letter of the year. It was a good day to choose, because she was due to begin a new voluntary role in the morning, and I had no annoyingly urgent loose ends to deal with at home. At ten o’clock I sat down at the table in my sitting-room, lifted the lid of my laptop, opened a new file and took a sip of my coffee. There was no clear or visible reason to believe that my work would be postponed or interrupted.
You know, I’m sure that God would say he allows me quite a lot of slack. But I do the same for him. I really do. I am prepared - if not exactly happy - to temporarily shelve such issues as predestination and free will, all the human suffering that is allowed by an omniscient and all-loving creator, the devil apparently being allowed to rule the world in this age, and even the staggering fact that the most powerful country in the world has been allowed to end up with a leader who - oh, don’t get me started.
Anyway, you would think, would you not, that the Almighty might reward my patient forbearance over these issues by sending an angel in to ensure that I could get some work done this morning. If he did, all I can say is that there must have been an outbreak of fowl pest, because the one dumped on me was probably on some kind of work experience. I had typed just two words when disaster happened. On the other side of the table at which I am now sitting, stands a very tall, fluted glass container filled with fresh flowers. Earlier this morning it had a lot of water in it. Now it has none. For no reason that I could see, this vase suddenly slipped from the china coaster it was standing on and fell heavily across the table in my direction. The glass didn’t actually break, but the water flowed out and across the wooden surface like a tidal wave. Objects lying around on the table became small islands in a sea of stale, flower-fragmented, stained water.
Panic-stricken, I rushed to the kitchen as fast as three score years and ten would allow and collected what was left of our latest giant kitchen roll. Seconds later I liberated and frantically mopped my mobile phone island before anything else, closely followed by some printed sheets of paper, a pink plastic box of computer sticks, and my new black spectacle case. The water remained. There was a lot of it. No exaggeration. There was a lot. .
Repeated applications of paper barely touched the problem. Not only that, but as I had nothing handy in which to dump the sodden lumps of tissue, they simply remained on the table, slowly and maddeningly releasing the water that they were supposed to have absorbed. Saying some quite bad things, I staggered back to the kitchen for a receptacle. A few minutes later, after what I can only describe as feverish activity, the kitchen roll was exhausted, and the results formed a strange pile in a big china bowl.
One problem. The table was still awash.
Only one resource remained. Not for the first time I cursed the fact that we have no downstairs toilet. Martyrdom is always a possibility in the committed Christian life, but I don’t see why the scripturally dead among us should have to put up with trudging repeatedly up and down stairs before it happens.
It worked, though. Toilet rolls did the trick in the end. One and a half rolls it needed before that expanse of polished wood was totally dry once more. Sitting beside the bowl, now piled ridiculously high with a mountain of soaking, dripping tissue, I breathed a weary gasp of relief. At that precise moment - the phone rang.
For a moment I rocketed into Basil Fawlty mode. But it was all right in the end. The call brought good news from someone I really like. Also, of course, it gave me something to write about now that the tide has gone out, and, interestingly, it is more or less on the subject that I was intending to talk about in the first place. It is this. Bridget and I are now absolutely certain about one aspect of this strange business of trying to be followers of Jesus. No matter how carefully, committedly and prayerfully we plan our lives, it is almost impossible to know what God is doing, or what our contribution to his work is likely to be. In the past this depressed and annoyed us at times. Perhaps we wanted to be driving and controlling the process of living as a Christian, whatever that might actually mean. Nowadays, we still ask continual questions about what’s going on and how we might be allowed to fit in, but there is a profound and growing sense of liberation accompanying a decision to let God be in charge, especially as more interesting and unexpected things seem to happen when he holds the reins. We’ve been telling people God is in charge of our lives for years, and actually believing it, so it’s probably about time it became true.
Bridget pointed out to me recently that this business of not relying on our own plans was vividly illustrated by our recent experience of putting bird feeders up in our back garden. We planned the whole thing with intricate care and our hopes were high. This is what happened when we finally sat back in our sitting-room with a shared pair of binoculars and waited for the show to begin.
B: Okay, well, all the stuff’s out there. We’ve got fat balls and a wild seed mix on the left. That should bring all sorts of birds, especially in the winter.
A: Great. Right. What about Nyjer seeds? It would be really nice to get some Goldfinches coming down. I can’t believe those birds. They’re so pretty.
B: They’re adorable. Oh, siskins like Nyjer seeds as well. Should get lots of them.
A: Siskins are finches as well, aren’t they? Big beaks.
B: That’s right. What else? Oh, I put some flaked maize on the ground around the feeders as well. That’s for the blackbirds. And I haven’t forgotten the tits and the greenfinches. Apparently they go mad for sunflower seeds.
A: Excellent. Lots of good old millet for the house sparrows and the collared doves. We’re bound to get some sparrows, aren’t we?
B: Why not? They’ve got to eat. I just hope the other birds don’t crowd them out.
A: Yes, that would be sad, wouldn’t it? Really unfair. Poor old sparrows. We’ll keep an eye on that. Heh, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we had a greater spotted woodpecker one day? Beautiful red on their heads. They do come into gardens sometimes. I’m really excited. Do you want first go with the binoculars?
B: No, you go ahead. So exciting! I wonder what our very first bird will be.
A: Okay, let’s have a look. (pause) Erm, nothing yet. Wait a minute! There’s one! Wow! Wow! straight for the Nyjer seeds!
B: (clapping hands) Goldfinch?
A: N-n-n-no, it’s more of a browny-coloured sort of bird, I think. Not quite sure…
B: Probably a siskin. (looks at book). The question is - is it a European siskin or a Eurasian siskin. The Eurasian one’s got a black head and a sort of –
A: Ha! No. no. I’m pretty sure it’s a good old House sparrow.
B: I didn’t think they were supposed to go for Nyjer seeds.
A: This one does. Can’t have read the information properly. Don’t blame him really. Grab a meal before the others get in.
B: (pointing) There’s another one! On the other feeder. Quick - give me the glasses. (pause) That’s - that is - that is definitely - that is another sparrow. (pause) Oh, both the sparrows have flown away now. Wait a minute! (excitedly) A whole flock of birds - all over both feeders.
A: Fantastic! Now we’re getting somewhere. What sort of birds?
B: Hold on - let me see. Some sparrows… Ah! Ah!
A: What? What are the others?
B: You can look in a minute. (pause) I’m pretty sure the others are -
A: Reed Buntings?
B: Definitely not Reed Buntings… Oh! They’ve all flown off at once.
A: Did you manage to work out what they were before they went?
B: Er, sparrows mostly - well, all sparrows. Oh! Look, look, look, look, look! One birds come down all on his own. He must have frightened the others off. You look! You look! (hands glasses over) Come on! Quick! What is it?
A: Well, unless I’m very much mistaken, that is - come on, turn round so that I can see your head. Ah! There we are. That is definitely - a sparrow. That one’s cleared off as well now. (lowers glasses) Oh, well. I think that might be it for a while.
B: (a bit disappointed) Okay. What shall I write on the first page of our new Ornithological Observation Log?
A: Sparrows, I suppose. (she writes) Go on, bung a goldfinch in. No-one’ll know.
B: Well, I suppose one of those sparrows might have been an elderly goldfinch.
A: Exactly! He’d be flattered. Go on.
Just one more thing to get off my chest. I’ve been cheered and encouraged by the wonderful way in which representatives of the Christian Church vividly reflect and live out one of the commands given by Jesus in the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel. It goes like this:
A new command I give you: bully, mistreat and neglect one another. As I have bullied, mistreated and neglected you, so you must bully, mistreat and neglect one another.
Okay, I might have got that slightly wrong, but the fact is that we have recently met quite a lot of Christians who are wrestling with hurt and bewilderment because they have been marginalised or oppressed or manipulated by people who were supposed to be their brothers and sisters. One of the problems with this is that in many cases the people who cause such hurt have probably done so with what they see as the best of intentions. It is easy for us to race excitedly ahead with visions that spring from human optimism, and plans that have been agreed by everyone except the Holy Spirit, but if we take a moment to look behind us we may see bodies on the road. I’m quite sure I’ve been guilty of this myself. Thank goodness God has organised such a warm and efficient means of bringing light into the darkness.
Do let me know what you think about this particular issue. I would be most interested.
So, there we are then. My first letter of the year is written. Bridget and I have only the haziest idea of what the next twelve months might bring, but shapes are gradually becoming visible in the gloom, so we do hope and pray that our creaky bones will be able to cope with the tasks that are given to us. Warm regards to all who read this as well. God is very nice (if extremely difficult to read), and he’s looking for people to join him behind the counter. Only one qualification required. Willingness to be there.