Sunday, 15 September 2019

Back to the Roots

Sometimes when I visit my cousin, I take advantage of her location and go to a nearby record office to do some research into the history of my uncle's family who lived in that area.  After one such trip this week I began to write up what I'd discovered, and follow up with things I can look up on line.  I tried to find my uncle and his family on the 1939 Register (a survey made just after the start of World War II that was used in the issue of ration cards and, after the war, in the administration of the Health Service).

One feature of the on line presentation of this record is the provision of a multi-age map showing the location of each address.  Having found my uncle's address, Merrils Farm, on the outskirts of Derby, I scrolled down to look at the map.  Having also looked at the modern version of the map I realised that, although the farm is no longer there, its location is very close to the road I would have driven on quite often a few years ago when making frequent deliveries to Rolls Royce.

But what amazed me most was the amount of time I spent mesmerised, just looking at that map on my computer screen.  My uncle wasn't my direct ancestor and, although I remember his occasional visits with affection, he died when I was only 13.  Nevertheless, I was just spellbound by my discovery that I'd often passed near to somewhere that he had lived.

As the current craze - facilitated by advances in digital technology - for interest in family history witnesses, our roots are important to us.  The Old Testament tells the story of God's people, the Israelites, who had constantly broken their covenant with God and as a consequence had been exiled from their promised land and were under the control of the rulers first of Assyria, then of Babylon, and later of Persia.  After many years, there began a gradual return from exile under Zerubbabel, a prominent Israelite and descendant of King David.  The story is told in the early chapters of Ezra.  The return took quite a while to get going; eighty years later Ezra himself led another tranche.

After another thirteen years, word came to Nehemiah, who was the cup-bearer to the Persian king, of the state of Jerusalem, still not rebuilt despite the years that Israelites had been back there.  Nehemiah was very affected by this news and sought the permission of the King to lead a party to Jerusalem (Nehemiah ch. 1-2).  The remainder of his book tells how he followed up God's inspiration to lead the returning Israelites to rebuild their city and to support the priest Ezra in the rekindling of their covenant with God.

I was intrigued by the link with my long-dead uncle; Nehemiah was moved by the derelict state of a city he'd never seen.  What is it that is so magnetic about our roots?  And what can it teach us?  The fundamental lesson is this.  God created us for one purpose only: to have a relationship with Him.  We are hard-wired for that purpose, as the psalms tell us.  "Earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you.  My whole being longs for you." (Ps. 63:1); "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God." (Ps. 42:1).  The next best thing to a relationship with God is the tie with members of our family, not just our children, but also our forbears and ancestors ... it's all part of the wonderful mystery of creation and procreation.

If, like me, you're obsessed by and drawn to your own family history, why not take that fascination one step further and develop an equal interest in and response to the One who has loved you constantly since you were in your mother's womb?

Sunday, 1 September 2019

A Word about Harsh Words

A few weeks ago - possibly some months now, considering how time flies these days - I moved my furniture around and uncovered some bookshelves that had previously been masked by the dining table.  As my eye skimmed the titles one volume stood out and has since been read, a bit at a time.  'Medieval Gentlewoman' by Fiona Swabey is based on the life of a Suffolk heiress, Alice de Bryene (c.1360-1435), and I'd like to share with you a short passage from it:
“The gossip was an important figure in the later Middle Ages, from the word godsib (sibling) or godparent, denoting the spiritual affinity of the baptised and their sponsors.  More significantly a gossip was a woman who attended a close friend when she was in labour and often assisted at the birth.  Such women were part of the informal domestic webs of information and power, passing on their wisdom and experience with little respect for hierarchy, though at the same time they adhered to traditional and conservative concepts and their opinions must often have been prejudiced.  Many of their ‘old wives’ tales’ consisted of practical advice on sex, rearing animals, horticulture, cures and the interpretation of dreams and omens.  Predictably, ‘women’s tongues’ were usually conceived as being divisive, the ready butt of medieval misogyny, though it was not until the mid-sixteenth century that the gossip became a pejorative figure.”

Considering this development in the meaning and use of the word, I wasn’t surprised to find that the concordance to my on-line Bible offers no mention of 'gossip' in the King James translation.  A modern version, however, lists eight occurrences.  Four of these are from Proverbs, notably ​​​​​​ "The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down into the person’s innermost being." (Prov. 18:8), and there is only one from the New Testament, where St Paul gives voice to his misgivings about the infant church in Corinth maintaining their standards of behaviour in his absence (2 Cor. 12:20).  The King James version uses 'whisperings' for 'gossip' here, and for its purveyor in Proverbs, 'talebearer'.
Both of these help us to distinguish between the virtuous 'godsib' of centuries past and the less worthy practices to which the word was later applied.  Those of us who have reached mature years may remember being told as children that 'all whispers tell lies,' or having the spreading of malicious falsehoods about our playmates being described as 'telling tales'.  We don’t have to dig very deeply to find a Biblical source for many of the wise sayings of the older generation.
Maybe the wisdom that comes to us from these later developments of what was in medieval times a totally different expression is particularly relevant as we face the possibility of Brexit becoming a reality.  Firstly, I think it's important that we view all changes in society - whether in language, medicine, technology or financial and economic affairs - in a balanced way.  We have to accept that change has happened, noting with approval what benefits any changes has brought, while not forgetting the good aspects of what has been replaced and seeking to maintain them or reinstate them within the changed society when this might be possible.  

Secondly, when we turn ourselves to condemn tittle-tattle - and its near neighbour falsehood - from the standpoint of what we believe to be honest virtue and accuracy, it's essential that we remember standards of courtesy and civility.  In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, "'Hate the sin and not the sinner' is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practised, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world."  Many people believe that his opening phrase is from the Bible, but this is not the case.  What Jesus did teach, which covers the same general problem, is to be found in Matthew's gospel.  "Don't judge, so that you won't be judged.  For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use you will receive." (Matt. 7:1-2).  Paul also advised against reckless condemnation of our fellows when he wrote to the Romans, "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay', says the Lord" and advised, "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for by doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head." (Romans 12:19-20).

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Picking up the Pieces

Not many years go by in most homes without something getting broken or going missing.  If it's only a minor component of a greater whole - perhaps a chipped cup or a missing jig-saw piece - we might decide to work around the gap or live with the incompleteness.  If it's something more fundamental like a broken chair-leg, chances are that it will find its way to the nearest tip.

But is this the only solution?  Might there be someone else out there who would either be willing to use that item, knowing that it's not perfect, or have the resources and skill to mend it?  If we don't want to live with a 'five-and-a-bit-place' dinner service, might there be someone else out there who has the same design with a couple of items missing, for which your reject could provide the perfect remedy?

Even if only because it's good for the planet, it's always worth asking how something we no longer want to keep might be redirected into a new lease of life, rather than binned.  And the same concept applies to human lives, too.  Whatever challenge we face, whether trivial or life-threatening, God is always ready to help if we call upon Him.  Psalm 46:1 describes Him as 'an ever-present help in trouble'.

The prophet Isaiah put it rather nicely, in words that prompted this article in the first place, "a bruised reed He will not break, and a smouldering wick He will not snuff out." (Isaiah 42:3).  The idea of brokenness also called to mind a worship song by Graham Kendrick; you can find the words of 'God of the Poor' here.  There are phrases in that song that express many people's thoughts and fears about modern life.  'Bread for the children' is but one example.  Surely it's a truly broken world when one of its richest nations allows schoolchildren to have free meals at school, but in the holidays their parents can only feed them by incurring debts in some other aspect of 'normal' life!

At the weekend, I listened via the internet to a service from Gateway Church in Abergavenny.  In his final prayer their pastor, Chris Babb, used these words, "[God] is able to bring hope even in the most hopeless of situations, light in the darkest of hours, and take all the broken pieces of our lives and turn them into a beautiful masterpiece for His glory."

Back to the mundane ... next time you discover a missing or broken part in your home, or encounter a potentially devastating problem in your life, remember that ever-present Help in trouble, and ask yourself, 'What could be done with what's left?'

Thursday, 1 August 2019

You Make Me Sick!

How have you coped with the very hot weather?  Many I know just can't bear it and are very glad when the temperature drops by ten or fifteen degrees.  There's a limit, after all, to the amount of chilled drinks that can be consumed and some would have it that, although they keep your body hydrated, they do little in the way of providing a lasting cooling effect.  Some hold that a hot drink is still more refreshing in hot weather; I'm not sure of the physics behind that idea, though.

I remember, at the age of about six or seven, accompanying my mother to the harvest field to take my father more drink as he worked on into the evening.  In my teenage years, when I would get up soon after dad and be eating my breakfast as he packed up his lunch bag.  There was room in his bag for his sandwich box and just one bottle of cold tea, which he managed to keep upright while slung on his back for his cycle ride to work.  In those days, I thought it strange to drink cold what is, essentially, a hot drink but cold tea it was, poured straight from the teapot with neither milk nor sugar.  I think it was all he'd known throughout his working life and he always claimed it was more refreshing than any of the modern drinks that I preferred.

I've lost track of the times I've noticed half a mug of coffee by my desk, neglected as a result of my concentration on the computer screen.  Although stone cold, I've drunk it down and found it quite acceptable.  And many roadside service stations will offer on their shelves a proprietary brand of chilled coffee ... at a price!  One thing I don't like, however, is a hot drink that is getting cold.  While having not yet reached the refreshing qualities of a cold drink, it's not the hot drink that I brought a while ago from the kitchen, and is likely to meet the sink in short order.  After all, if you go to the tap for a glass of water, you will run the tap for a few moments to 'let it run cold', rather than fill your glass from the water that has been warming in the pipework behind the tap.

In biblical times, the ancient town of Laodicea was a thriving commercial centre renowned for its black woollen cloth and a medical school that produced eye ointment.  The local water was so heavy with minerals that it just couldn't be drunk.  Nearby Hierapolis had hot springs and an aqueduct was built to provide Laodicea with a more acceptable alternative from there, but by the time it arrived the water was was lukewarm: neither hot nor refreshingly cool.

The last, and arguably the best remembered, of the seven letters to churches that form the second and third chapters of Revelation was written to the Christians at Laodicea and referred to some of these local characteristics (Rev. 3:14-22).  Their life and faith had become complacent and no longer incisive as it once had been.  Their behaviour didn't demonstrate God's love for the people, and presumably they just couldn't see the needs around them.  They were just 'going through the motions' of their religion.  There are various translations of verse 16: 'spit (NIV), vomit (NET) or spue (KJV) you out of my mouth'; perhaps one of the modern paraphrases captures the sentiment when it says, 'You make me sick!'  It matches the local water, and thus balances the recommended remedies, which refer to 'white clothes to wear' and 'salve to put on your eyes so that you can see' (verse 18).

I can't expect all my readers to share my taste in drinks, so let me simply suggest that, when next you have cause to reject a drink - for whatever reason - you think of lukewarm water and remember the complacency of the Laodiceans.  Is there anything you need to tighten up in your spiritual life?



Monday, 15 July 2019

Mirror-wise

I've noticed a number of pictures appearing recently on social media that have been published back-to-front.  I don't realise it at first, until there's a street that I recognise, or suddenly I see some writing on a badge or shop sign.  I often use a familiar phrase from a long ago foreign language lesson to express surprise, especially when I'm alone, and I mutter to myself, 'Hoe kan het zijn?' (how can it be?)  Suddenly I get it, the whole image is reversed, as if it's been taken using a mirror.

Perhaps a more important question is not how, but why should it be so?  It's reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's words in The Importance of Being Earnest: "To lose one parent ... may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." For one picture, by some means, to have been inserted reversed could be an accident but when it occurs two or three times, from a number of sources, I begin to think something more coordinated is afoot.

I confess, I don't know the answer.  But I know that a sign or badge is back to front because I know what the letters should look like; I recognise that a street is portrayed back to front because I've seen the actual street, and remember the sequence of its buildings.  St James, in his letter, wrote about a man looking in a mirror and then going away and promptly forgetting what he looks like (James 1:22-25).  James used this as an illustration for looking at the perfect law (i.e. reading God's Word) but not doing what it tells us to do.

The modern equivalent would be someone who considers it sufficient simply to hear a good sermon on a Sunday morning; by the time the roast dinner is before him, he has completely forgotten what had been said as if he'd never been there at all.  It's so much easier, isn't it, to continue doing what we've always done?  Either we don't realise what we need to change in our lives, or we postpone indefinitely any change in our habits that would put into effect what we've heard.

Someone I was chatting to in the last few days said, "I'm not ready to commit ... because there are things I'm doing - things I like doing - that I know I'd have to give up ... and I'm not ready to give them up."  Knowing a time in my own life when I said more or less the same thing, I understood where my friend was coming from but, knowing also where that decision had led me, I couldn't be generous enough to tell him, "That's fine, take your time."  Instead I prayed that he would be led to a point where the attraction of those things would pale, and that he would then find himself ready to commit to those things that are eternal.

James concludes this chapter by advocating that his readers should "keep [themselves] from being polluted by the world." (James 1:27).  Sometimes I realise that something I've just done was 'unworthy' of my calling and, either in my mind or in reality, I consider how I must appear in that mirror.  I then have no option but to regret what I've done and beg forgiveness.  My prayer for my friend is that he may one day be able to do the same.



Monday, 1 July 2019

Turning the Pages

If you visit my home, the image most likely to leave with you is the books.  My lounge is clad with eight units of three shelves and the bedroom two five-shelf units.  That's a shelf-run of about 35 metres.  While it doesn't scratch the surface of the National Archive's 200 kilometres, for a small flat some would say it's excessive.

The collection consists of fiction, history, biography, theology, travel, music and reference.  To me, they are not just words on a page (or several thousand pages); some are old friends.  Some have been in my possession since my teenage years; the majority date from the period since the millennium.  With some a mere glance can bring forth a vivid memory of an event or an era of my life; others I've completely forgotten about.

It has been said that they are like furniture!  Since I live in a rented property, my landlord's agent makes a quarterly visit to ensure on behalf of both parties that all is well; one day a different lady from the office came.  As she entered the lounge she exclaimed, "Oh! You're the book man!"  Word had obviously got around.  Now, in my retirement, I'm filling one day a week trying to sell books on line on behalf of a local charity, which has opened up a completely new perspective on what I suppose has been a fairly low-level hobby for half a century.

The Bible, of course, is not just one book, but a whole library.  In its pages we can find many parallels with my shelves.  The Bible contains poetry, drama, romance, biography, history, prophecy and many pages of personal letters as well as the theology that we naturally associate with it.  But apart from the words written on their pages, our books can remind us of much about God.

As one who has moved house since the majority of my collection has built up, I can vouch for the fact that books in any number at all are solid.  They are heavyweight and dependable, whether you're looking to weigh down a curtain or break your back lifting them!  A book is not easily lost, although it can be mislaid, or put in the wrong place which, as any librarian will vouchsafe, is as good as being lost!  God is always there, too, and ever dependable (Hebrews 13:5).

Have you ever come across something in a book that you disagree with?  You can curse and shout at it, but you can't change it ... what's printed there stays there.   You can ignore it, scribble through it, tear the page out, even burn it!  But all the other copies that have been printed will still contain what offended you.  God is unchangeable, too (Hebrews 13:8).

A book can answer our questions.  We have to pick the right book to match our question, of course; it's no use asking who was prime minister in 1842 and seeking the answer in a cookery book!  We may have to open a number of books if our search is complex or obscure, may even have to buy a new one!  And at the end of the chase, we may have found conflicting opinions about the answer.  Prayer is so much easier, and, although the answers to prayer sometimes need discernment, we can be sure of the answer when we get it, because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2).

Very thin books can be 'stitched', i.e. held together with large metal staples; many cheap books are held together with glue inside a card cover (paperbacks).  Hard-back or 'case-bound' books are stitched with string or cord and bound into board covers; there are many different ways this can be done and they are strong and long-lasting.  However even these wear with constant use and handling, and need to be repaired by specialists.

God is boundless!

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Another Cup of Tea?

I know ... something of a pattern is developing.  I promise that my next post will not feature tea.  However, the term 'cup of tea' - or its common abbreviation 'cuppa' - has a place of particular fondness in my memory.  It reminds me of a particular gentleman whose personality was such as to make an impression on my teenage son, who resented joining me in our visit, yet came away saying, "What a nice old chap!"  In a story told to me many years ago by the speaker's daughter-in-law, 'cuppa' featured in a frequent expression of this self-made, and largely self-educated, man.  In his working life he was a professional gardener and in retirement, after an afternoon's work in his own garden, he would suggest to his wife that it was time for 'a nice cup of tea'.  In the sort of private language that happy families develop, this was conveyed as "Scuppatee, Rose?"

Tea, as most of my readers will readily acknowledge, has many properties.  It can be the source of refreshment - as in the case of that gardener - or of stimulation or energy.  It's often the vehicle by which neighbours will get to know one another.  Although in recent years tea has perhaps been overtaken by coffee as the drink of invitation, the truth remains that to share 'a cup of something' is a good way to deepen an acquaintance or to share - or even resolve - a problem.  A cup is also a euphemism, a shorthand if you will, for the burden of office.  It's a way of expressing succinctly the complexities of a task or challenge that is faced by someone in the course of their life.

There are Biblical precedents for each of these examples, each of which provides food for thought in the direction of drawing us closer to our Lord.  Jesus wasn't thinking of tea or coffee when he said, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink." (John 7:37), and I don't think the psalmist was referring to a drink when he wrote, "Lord You alone are my portion and my cup of blessing; You make my lot secure" (Ps. 16:5). 

When it comes to giving a cup of friendship to those in need, we have to acknowledge that members of the Salvation Army offer the best example.  They can comfortably rely on Jesus' promise, "If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you that person will certainly not lose their reward." (Matt. 10:42).

When James and John, supported by their mother, sought prominent places in the Kingdom to come, Jesus challenged them, "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" (Matt. 20:22), and when that time came to Him, Jesus spent a night of agony in the garden of Gethsemane and asked, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will but as You will." (Matt. 26:39).

And what is my point in reciting all of these?  I recall a particular moment in my life - 20 years ago this week - when Jesus' agonised plea in the garden provided the words for my own prayers, and prompted me to turn to Him to see me through a frightening situation.  How often in our day do we turn to a cup (yes, or a mug) for a refreshing drink?  How great would be the improvement in our lives if, at all those times, we were to remember our Lord, and commit to Him whatever might be on our minds just at that moment?