The Encouragee

So, last K of Parkrun . . . I’m fading a little. Not too much. Just a little. Parkrun? Don’t know it? It’s a national movement – literally – of people who run 5K each Saturday morning in parks around the U.K.

Successful? If you took the distance each parkrunner has run since it started and put those metres end to end . . . the moon? Nope. More like Mars.

So, I’m nearing the end and I notice a lady nearby who’s also flagging a bit. My back is tightening and the pain is starting to kick in but I’m starting to ease past her. Then, for no particular reason, I decide to gee her up.

“Come on, you can do it!”

“You’re doing great!”

“Not far now, come on, keep up with me!”

She smiles. I smile too. She speeds up a little. We run together. Doesn’t take much, does it? The power of words, the effect of encouragement is a powerful thing.

But here’s what I didn’t expect.

The moment I opened my mouth, something happened physically inside me. It was as though I had received an injection of endorphins straight into my veins. The surge of energy inside my body was remarkable . . . and unexpected. I thought, ‘I gotta find someone to encourage every week!’ I could run a marathon like this, just telling other runners they’re doing great!

I’m not telling this story to claim some kind of moral virtue. Far from it.

I have two points:

1) Encouragement is easily done, but often neglected. The NT is full of encouragement, but how often do we do it? Not enough. Not nearly enough. Is it our cynical age or embarrassment or not quite knowing how to do it? Here’s a quick lesson. See the woman who’s been serving coffee every week for the past year in your church. Here’s your line: “Hi Carol, just wanted to say how much I appreciate your service each week. You do a fantastic job.” It’s not that hard. Encouragement should focus on something specific, be sincere and yup, you have to remember to do it. It doesn’t cost you anything but it can quite literally change a person’s day, even week.

2) That surge of energy inside my body on Parkrun? There was a message in that, I think. For me, certainly, and maybe for you. Encouraging others, doing good to others, nourishes the soul. It certainly nourished my body. The act of speaking to my fellow-runner drove me on, generated increased energy for my own race. It cost nothing, helped her and made me feel like I could run the course again.

So, here’s a thought. The injunction to ‘love your neighbour as yourself,’ maybe those two are so interconnected, they are indivisible. The best way, by far, to love yourself is surely to love your neighbour. And the degree to which you care for others – on Parkrun, that meant encouragement – is the degree to which you truly love yourself.

So, this next week, why don’t you identify someone in your life who could do with some ‘geeing up?’ Don’t be glib; don’t make it a joke. Mean it when you say you appreciate what they do. You may find your body surging with endorphins. Or your soul.

But one thing’s for certain.

Your encouragee will appreciate your words.

And you might even make their day.

© Richard Collins 2015

Squashed, then lifted

Last Thursday, I lost a game of squash. And what a fantastic time I had!

Allow me to explain.

I play at Trojans and I had the privilege of playing the club champion. His name is Kevin Harris and – forgive the cliché – he is a ‘legend’ at our club, having won our club championship . . . not sure . . . many, many times. 14 or 15, I think. Maybe more.

He’s 48 or so now and after beating me, he will probably go on to win another title. At age 48. If you know anything about squash, you’ll realise how remarkable that is.

It was truly an honour to compete against him. But more than that, I was extremely grateful for the way he played. He was a real gentleman. In squash, if you’re significantly better than your opponent, you can make them look rather foolish. Let’s be honest, he could have won in ten minutes.

He could have squashed me, pun intended.

Instead, he played a length, never played a drop shot, always lobbed it to the back to keep the point going. I was 7-5 up in the second game, due to his generosity, and for a moment I thought I might sneak a game. But I was a rusty Ford Fiesta in the middle lane, while he was the Red Ferrari passing me on the outside. He simply put his foot down and purred by, 9-7. Take a breather, mate.

The experience caused me to consider a story in the gospels. You may know it. Jesus meets his friend Simon Peter after a rather frustrating night ‘fishing’ on the Sea of Galilee. After teaching from the boat, he asks Peter to take it out one more time. Come on, let’s have another go. You can tell Peter’s a bit ticked about the request. You can imagine him thinking . . .

‘I get the idea that you’re someone special, not sure exactly what that means, but fishing? You think you know fishing? That’s my job and trust me, there ain’t no fish right now. You stick to the carpentry and give me some respect. I know these waters like the proverbial back of my hand and when the fish don’t bite, they don’t bite.’ Sigh. ‘But because it’s you . . . ‘

So they let down the nets – no doubt with a fair amount of harrumphing along the way – and whaddya know? Fish are practically jumping into the boat. Now, what I like here is Peter’s reaction.

Lord, I’m a sinner.

In the presence of greatness, he immediately recognises his own inadequacy.

There are human beings and then there’s this man before me. I’m not like him.

I am not worthy.

There was a chasm in class between myself and Kevin Harris but there on the Sea of Galilee? The gap was so vast, so enormous, Peter could only bow in worship. I’m reminded of John the Baptist, hugely popular at the time, who told the crowds, ‘I am not worthy even to untie his sandals.’ He is above and beyond me. Far, far greater than I. He is worthy of worship.

(Side note: How interesting that after Lionel Messi’s mesmerizing performance in the Champions League last Wednesday, his coach, Luis Enrique described him as ‘a player from another dimension.’)

Back to Trojans.

When you play someone like Kevin Harris, it’s hard not to be overawed. He is uncommonly gifted on a squash court, and my own deficiencies were quickly exposed. I am not one to worship sportsmen or women – how foolish is that? – but to compete against a top sportsman, it’s hard to avoid expressing this kind of sentiment:

‘It’s an honour to play against you today.’

It was indeed an honour to play squash with someone whose gifts are far beyond my own. But I use the word ‘honour’ because above all, I was treated well. He did not squash me, he let me play. I was not nearly good enough to compete with him properly but he kept the rally going. I was included, even if the result was a foregone conclusion.

I wonder if you’re one of those who has dreamed of meeting a sportsman or woman whom you admire. What would it be like to kick a football around with Ronaldo or Messi? Go jogging with Usain Bolt or Mo Farah?

In my case, I would die to knock a ball up and down with Roger Federer.

And how blessed were those guys who were fit enough to run next to Paula Radcliffe during the London Marathon? One of them held her hand as she ran towards the finishing tape.

Unforgettable. And yes, what an honour.

And there’s Peter who thought he knew a thing or two about fishing. Was he humiliated by a man with powers far beyond his own? Squashed? Maybe a little at first. Who knows? I thought I just told you there are no fish . . .

But for Simon Peter, it was not just an honour to be in the presence of a great man.

His encounter with Jesus brought him to his knees.

In worship.

But the Lord didn’t let him stay there. He showed him kindness. He invited him in. He lifted him up. He kept the rally going and let him play. He showed him grace.

Simon Peter may have felt squashed, but he was lifted up.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”

What an honour. What a privilege.

To be invited to join the Son of Man in his work.

Surely Simon Peter would never forget the day when he was squashed, then lifted up.

© Richard Collins 2015

Note: My novel, House of Souls, is due to be released in September. If you would like to assist me by increasing traffic to Mirth and Melancholy, that would really help a lot. It can be done easily by re-blogging or sharing. The buttons down there. See them? Click. Comment. Share. Takes about 10 seconds. Many many thanks.

Surprise! Surprise!

Remember Christmas when you were a kid? The stomach-churning excitement as the days ticked down towards Christmas Day. No more school. No more shopping days. It’s coming, it’s coming! And as we inspected the piles of presents beneath the tree, the most important question: is that big box near the back for me? Because big was good, remember? A big truck. A big train set. A big something. Now, perhaps small is better. Jewellery. A phone. An iPad.

Christmas itself wasn’t a surprise but the paper covering each gift ensured it remained a surprise until the very last moment. (Most perhaps, but not all . . . hmm, that certainly looks like a cricket bat, despite all the wrapping.) I wonder if you like surprises. I do. The right kind, of course. The edible is good; the wearable a risk; the driveable always welcome.

Is Christmas a surprise? Perhaps some aspects of what took place on the first Christmas, depending on what you’ve read. So, for some, here are some surprises about the event itself. Look away now if you prefer to keep your Nativity story the way it’s always been.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you . . .

Okay. Shepherds, yes, all there present and correct. Magi also, though who knows how many? Three comes from the number of gifts mentioned; there’s no way of knowing how many wisemen-astrologer-fortune-tellers were bearing them. No kings. Oh come on, we know there weren’t any kings. Clue – not one mention in any of the gospels. We have kings because Class 3A has 35 kids and hey, Tommy and the gang are getting restless and need parts to calm them down.

Mary and Joseph, yes. Virgin Birth. Well, yes, but . . . in truth, we should focus on the Virginal Conception, to use its technical name. That’s really the key moment. Not the birth. The truly miraculous moment was when the Holy Spirit alighted upon Mary and fertilized an ovum. That’s extraordinary. A divine intervention to change history, for sure. And then, yes, you’re entitled to celebrate the virgin who gives birth.

A census. Yes, although hard to pin down. We’ve got a slight problem with the dating here. It gets complicated, with Quirinius’ dates as governor of Syria causing an issue. Maybe the translation should be ‘after he was governor.’ Or was he governor twice? As I say . . . anyway, there were censuses. Quite a few, and Mary and Joseph traveled to their hometown to register during one of them.

Arriving out of breath, nine months pregnant? Nowhere to be found in the text. Evident in lots of re-telling, of course, but not in the most important source document, Luke’s gospel. Au contraire, the passage reads, ‘while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.’ There for how long? No way of knowing. Maybe weeks or months. Who knows?

Stables and innkeepers? Sorry. They’ve got to go.

Stable. The word for stable – nowhere in the text at all. Manger, yes. Mentioned three times actually. But stable, no. So, why was Jesus laid in a manger? Because they weren’t staying at a commercial inn. So no innkeepers. They were most likely staying in a home. Joseph turns up in his familial hometown and he could have stayed at almost anyone’s home. That was how the culture worked.

So, what’s the baby doing in a feeding trough? Because ‘there was no room for them in the guest-room.’ (That comes from the NIV) Not inn, guest-room. Katalyma. Trans: place to stay. Almost certainly a room on the roof of the house, filled with another family member. So Mary and Joseph were in the main room downstairs. At one end, the animals were brought in for the night. Feeding trough available when Jesus was born. Busy time, a convenient place to lay him.

I know we’ve all heard the sermons and songs about Jesus being rejected at his birth. Sermon main point: Like Bethlehem’s inns and innkeepers, neither do we make room for him. And the point is well taken. It’s just not based on the events as they actually happened. In reality, Christ was most likely born in a simple home surrounded by women. Men were never allowed near a birthing woman. So, lots of family, lots of noise, a regular birth – extraordinary and just like any other – the most beautiful of paradoxes. Perhaps that’s the point.

The rest you can keep. The shepherds and the Magi – the coolest dudes in the Bible (Wouldn’t Morgan Freeman make a great Magi?) And then, of course, the angels. Which provoke fear. Just how terrifying were they? Take a read of Ezekiel 1. Then imagine thousands of these guys spinning around in the heavens. Breath-taking. And apparently terrifying.

I hope there weren’t too many surprises in there for you. You want to keep the innkeeper and a woman in labour wandering around late at night seeking shelter? Be my guest. It doesn’t bother me. We own lots of nativity scenes, collected from around the world and we display them all. The fact is, the core of the story remains the same. That Christ was born in Bethlehem. Surprise?

Oh, yes. A shocking surprise. So surprising, in fact, we humans are still reeling.

This past year, I passed a milestone, which I passed while looking in a different direction. Fifty won’t be a number I remember with much fondness. And as the Christmases arrive and pass on, I even become familiar with the paradoxes which at first seemed so stirring when first I became aware of them. The Good Shepherd surrounded by shepherds. Magi bearing gifts, laid before the Gift; wise men bowed before Wisdom. The eternal Word, brand new. The powerful powerless to feed himself. The mighty one bathed in humility.

So how can a scene so unutterably beautiful, become familiar? Dare I say it, routine.

Because we grow up? Because we hear the story so many times, we know all the best lines? Because it’s no longer a surprise?

How foolish. Like many, I desire to know instead of trust. I am in the Garden desiring knowledge and control, instead of trusting and loving. It is undoubtedly true that surprise is in essence a dramatic shift from the unknown to the known. But what a risk! Surprises are great – but hold on, because this one here might be more lime green socks from Auntie Beryl. Like last year. Like the previous three years. Not much of a surprise there. Does that woman have no imagination?

Perhaps, then, it’s partly about the timing. Because surprise is always at the behest of the surprise-giver. The gift-giver. He chooses when to surprise us. We don’t. We’re not in control, which is why we’re so stressed so much of the time.

Kids, on the other hand . . .

Who loves surprises the most? Children. They are in a constant state of excitement over what’s coming. Christmas is coming. But what exactly does that mean? I don’t know but last year it was fab because I got a bike and I can’t sleep because I want to see Santa and I’m fairly sure he’ll know I want a puppy. Or at least a camera or a skateboard . . . or . . . I’m feeling sleepy now. Ooh, I wonder if grandma will put £20 in with her card like she did last year. Hmm . . I’m sure if I stay awake long enough, I’ll see Ss. . . zzzzz.

Is Christmas a surprise? It certainly can be. So, some Scripture for jaded souls.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

I’m a child. Created by the will of God, according to St. John. And my Lord affirmed the importance of children in a society in which they were often ignored.

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Children possess a trait, so clear and unvarnished, it simply beams out of them. They trust. Oh yes, they do. Just look at that toddler waddling towards you, arms outstretched. Without faith, it is impossible to please God.

Receive the kingdom like a little child.

Ooh, I wonder what surprises lie under the tree, in the kitchen. Next week. Next year. Whoa, starting to feel anxious – not enough money, exams coming up, medical bills . . . oh, I’m tired. Of the worry. Of the effort expended in trying to lasso the unknown.

Frankly, I don’t know what next year will bring.

Surprise me, Lord.

And teach me how to trust.

Amen.

© Richard Collins 2014

~~~~~~~~~

Afterword: Christmas is a time for giving, of course. And top of my Christmas list is a publisher for my book. You probably can’t help with that, but you could give me a FREE gift. Re-blog or share this page with your friends. Especially if you’ve followed this blog for the latter part of this year, that’s a gift I’d really appreciate. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Many thanks.

Messing with the Police

On August 9, 2014, Police Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death in Ferguson, Missouri.

What’s been your reaction? And how do you respond if different wording is used?

Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown.

Our own prejudices and the baggage we carry affects profoundly how we see a case like this. For me, this brings about a strong case of déjà-vu: 1994-5, the years I met my beloved wife (and then married her!) The years of the OJ Simpson trial. I still remember where I was when I heard the verdict. I had followed the case closely and the evidence was damning. Blood all over OJ’s clothes, his house and car. It seemed impossible that he would be found ‘not guilty.’ But I was naïve about the effect of race on a trial like OJ’s. As many have concluded, he was never going to be found guilty by a majority black jury. Not in a million years.

I still remember my wife recounting her conversation with one of her co-workers, a black female psychologist, middle class, educated and successful. Paraphrasing, she said something like this, ‘It’s not that we think OJ’s innocent, but just this once, it’s nice to see one of us ‘beat the system.’ Black men, in particular, receive such poor treatment at the hands of the police, for once it’s the police who didn’t come out on top.’

And despite being white, I understand this sentiment. The reality is, race is still a huge issue in America and black men are often treated badly by the police to put it mildly. They aren’t just pulled over occasionally. It happens a lot and it’s clearly based on race. But black men are more likely to be involved in criminal activity, comes the response. Yes, that may be true. Or is that a function of class rather than race? It all becomes very messy.

Back to Michael Brown.

I have read a fair amount about the Michael Brown shooting and I’m still somewhat confused. Brown was caught on CCTV robbing a convenience store. That one’s easy. An altercation took place between Brown and Wilson at the car. Some say Brown reached in and punched Wilson. Others say he didn’t. After Wilson fired a couple of shots, one grazing his assailant, one missing, Brown took off down the road and then stopped and turned towards the policeman. Here we then have several witnesses whose testimony is contradictory. Some say he ran towards Wilson, some say he raised his arms, some claim he didn’t. Whatever happened, Wilson fired 10 more shots at Brown, killing him. Obviously he claims self-defence. That’s all he needs. The exact wording in the legal code which permits lethal force is this:

The suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others.

OR

The suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.

You can see the problem, I’m sure. As long as the officer thinks s/he’s in danger, s/he can use force. That’s how it works. And that’s often how black men die and police officers avoid prison.

Let me back up and tell you a little story of my own. We’d just started living in Torrance, CA and I was returning from our local store with a bag of groceries. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed three hooded figures tracking me on the other side of the road. I guess I wasn’t switched on enough, because as I reached a darkened area on the sidewalk, they ran across the road and demanded money. One brandished a knife.

Playing for time . . . er, or just being rather foolish, I tried to slow them down and allow myself time to think by asking a question! I know, I know, not the brightest spark. Now, come on, just hold on a minute. What are you–? . . . at which point, the guy with the knife moved forward. They grabbed my bag and took off. With a quart of milk and a lump of cheese. Oh and my wallet – that’s when I realized why I’d been stalling. So, of course . . . I immediately ran after them. No thinking. No concern for my safety. No consideration about further endangerment, possibly guns. Just . . . ‘hey, you’ve got my stuff!’

They jumped in a car and took off. I eyeballed the license plate and within 15 seconds of the robbery, I was calling the police. Two of the officers were very professional. A third was an imbecile, knew nothing about my case, but arrived to poke his face in the back of the Cruiser and ask stupid questions.

Here’s a remarkable end to the story. The following day, a man knocked on our door and handed me my wallet. He’d found it in a gutter about 200 yards down at the junction. Evidently, after seeing me pursue on foot, the thieves had panicked and tossed it out of the window. All my credit cards were there, my driver license, all but around $50 in cash. I thanked the man and then praised God!

What did I learn from my brief adventure? First, that under stressful circumstances, we don’t think, we just act. And sometimes we act foolishly. I have no clue why I ran towards the thieves. I just did. Second, police officers in the States carry guns. They bristle with them. Guns kill. Very quickly. Always, always obey a police officer. Simple as that. You do not need to understand, you just need to obey. Why? Because guns kill . . . very quickly.

Michael Brown was a petty criminal and he was foolish to stand up to a police officer. He made a foolish mistake. After taking off down the road, he turned and faced the police officer. Who knows exactly what he did next? It certainly seems as though he ran towards a policeman who was pointing a gun at him. What was he thinking? Answer? He wasn’t thinking. How easy it is to damn such foolishness. Yet, panic and stress cause people to do foolish things.

I’ve done it myself. I’ve run towards danger, not away from it and for the life of me, I don’t really know why. Except I can be foolhardy sometimes. If one of those youths had turned, pointed a gun and shot me, my explanation to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, ‘I ran towards them and they shot me’ would surely have caused the great saint to shake his head in disbelief. That didn’t happen thankfully. But it could have, I suppose.

In Michael Brown’s case, his actions cost him his life.

I was watching a show the other day called ‘Forever.’ A police sergeant talked about shooting an assailant in the leg as part of their training. It mystifies me that Officer Wilson shot Brown twelve times. Four of those shots hit his head and neck. The rest hit his right arm. None hit his legs. I’m sorry but I don’t accept the defence, ‘you need to shoot to kill.’ No, you don’t. Not when you’re the only one carrying a firearm. Michael Brown was clearly unarmed. But he was reaching into his jacket, wasn’t he? Possibly. The testimony on that is the most confused. Some say he had his hands raised. Others dispute this. Regardless, I don’t accept the ‘shoot to kill’ defence. Feel free to disagree.

Okay. A few final thoughts, based on Christian conviction.

First, rioting never solves anything. It’s simply the unlocking of our baser nature and damages not only local businesses (often black ones) but race relations generally. We hate the police so let’s commit crimes . . . bringing us into contact with the police. How foolish is that?

The massive divide between blacks and whites in America was highlighted by the OJ Simpson case. Around 90% or so of blacks approved of the verdict. Only 10% of whites did. The chasm may have been even larger. Two communities with vastly different perceptions of ‘how the world works.’

Enter Jesus Christ into a world of kings and slaves and violence and greed and religious hypocrisy. Each class in Jewish society separated and the gaps impossible to bridge. In first century Palestine, you were born into your class and you stayed there. Enter Jesus with a message of salvation for all people. The wonder of the church is that it’s a community of both Jew and Gentile. Read Ephesians. Jews of every class and Gentiles of every shape and size. A radical, world-changing concept. Perhaps even more remarkable is that this idea of unity between classes, races and genders dates from two thousand years ago. Aristotle and Plato never imagined such a thing. Nor did the Founding Fathers, tied as many of them were to institutional slavery.

Yet how could it be otherwise in a faith founded on Love?

Furthermore, the one thing which seems impossible in our world has been accomplished by God: Reconciliation. Of all the people in the world, Christians should understand this best. God has bridged the gap between Himself and his creatures. And he calls for us to be involved in efforts of reconciliation which reflect his character. We shouldn’t need Nelson Mandela to show us what reconciliation looks like. God has already provided the perfect model in his Son.

I have a dear friend in California who’s black. We worked together at the Red Cross. I worked with a lot of African-Americans at the Red Cross. I haven’t spoken to him about Michael Brown, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he viewed the shooting very differently to me. Nevertheless, what unites us far outweighs that which divides us.

We are brothers. We are sons of God.

We are neither black nor white but children of God.

Called to a ministry of reconciliation. For the sake of the one whose love cost him his life. Poured out to reconcile us to our heavenly father. Amen.

© Richard Collins 2014

Growing Up

I wonder if you’ve heard this one: Jesus was a man, but you know, he never had to struggle like us, did he? He was the Son of God so he must have found it easy to do the right thing. Right?’

I normally have two responses. The first is Hebrews 4.15,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.

And Luke 2.51-52,

51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

Jesus grew up . . . what a fascinating concept. When I think of the idea of growing up, I can’t help returning to those days when my kids were little . . . really little . . . back in California . . . when our house looked like a trashed Toys R Us . . . It was enough to move my fingers over the keys . . .

~~~~~~

 We’ve got it all wrong when it comes to making toys for infants. Why are we designing them in bright colors and giving them actual practical and educational value? Why do we buy them plastic trucks and cooking utensils and dolls and blocks? Particularly if your child is under one, they are not looking at the latest miniature food mixer with the realistic raised speed dial – complete with microscopic numbers – and nodding in approval. First, they don’t care how realistic it is; it’s going in the mouth anyway. For them, that’s the test of quality: does it feel good in my mouth because the expensive doll with the human hair may fail dismally on that score. Second, most toys last about five seconds before their many constituent parts disappear magically to all four corners of the house.

And there are so many parts. What is the child really playing with anyway? She’s grabbed the arm of Mr. Potato Head and is banging it against a puzzle piece, a blue block and a dried-banana-covered piece of plastic, whose original purpose is impossible to discern. I don’t know why they don’t just market toys for infants in bits. “100 plastic bits for your child: wrapped in packs of ten. When the first ten have disappeared under chairs, down sinks and behind beds, pull out the next pack. It’s endless fun for mother and baby!”

Surely we should come to terms with the fact that our children aren’t in the slightest bit interested in the toys we give them, be they plastic bits or dolls that sing, dance and play the national anthem. They’re much more interested in real stuff. Just after opening a huge box full of the newest, most cleverly interactive toys money can buy, our 11-month-olds crawl with purpose to the cupboard to pull out the metal bowls. They sit for hours tapping a wooden spoon against a bowl and tinkering with the rice maker, pushing buttons and sucking the electric cord. We’ve paid for mental stimulation that would have made a young Einstein’s head spin but no, it’s the mixing spoon and the ceramic casserole dish that the child really loves. I think there’s a message here. I think we should go with this. Why resist? And why just stop with the bowls and dishes? Why not let Johnny get his hands on the whole lot …….?

“Oh, Jenny, I just love your furry knives!”

“ Not just furry, Sally … put that down, Kevin … take a look at this. Flick that switch and—”

“ –Oh my goodness, a razor sharp knife pops out. That is just fantastic! So Kevin can play with knives after all and you just pop a switch and within seconds, you’re dicing carrots! Can Kevin flick the switch too?”

“Not at his age, it’s been tested for resistance among one-year-olds. 80% couldn’t make it budge. They just recommend you don’t give them to the stronger ones. They’re such a delight, I love them!”

“Er, Jenny … is Katie okay? It looks like she’s eating the dishwasher powder. Are you sure that’s safe?”

“Sherbet, Sally. The plastic pouch on the side of the box is refillable and you can fill it with any food of your choice! Yesterday, she was munching on the Cheerios I’d swept up from the dining room floor. I like to keep an eye on her while she’s eating week old food. So much healthier and safer.”

“Oh yes, I totally agree. Keep ‘em close. I spray eatable glue on my shins and then cover them with snacks. Ben loves picking them off and I know exactly where he is by the slight stinging sensation as they come off in his fingers.”

~~~~

Hmm, happy days. So where was I? Oh yes, the serious subject of Jesus’ childhood. I think that phrase, Jesus grew up, possibly contains more theological conundrums than almost any other. Isn’t he the one referenced by Paul as the one who sustains the universe? Not just made, sustains – present tense. That guy aged five, who presumably asked his dad ‘So what’s this for?’ before hacking away at a piece of wood with a hammer and chisel, with Joseph looking on nervously.

And then there’s the original question. Wasn’t it just plain easy for him to be good? And doesn’t that mean he wasn’t really ‘just a man.’ He was . . . come on, admit it, a Super-man.

The traditional response draws strongly on Philippians 2.5-8,

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This section – which is so intensely beautiful, it should move us straight to adoration – refers to what is called the Kenosis, or emptying. Christ emptied himself for us. But let’s stop for a moment and be clear what we’re talking about.

Christ was the God-Man. He possessed both a human and a divine nature. How the two natures interacted with each other is hard to understand at the best of times. If Jesus had been asked, ‘So can you explain the electronic gadgetry on the latest F-16?’ he would have done what any first century carpenter would have done. Looked at you as though you’d arrived from the moon. The suppression, therefore, of divine knowledge – which is all-encompassing – during his time on earth, was necessary in order for him to function as a normal human being.

Ah, but perhaps it was also necessary so that he could grow up. Right now, I have 2 teenagers – girls – and a son who will turn 13 in a couple of months. First, there is no contest between ‘the early years’ and the ‘teenage years.’ The early years are easy-peasy. Oh yes, they are! Change a diaper. Read a book. Endure a tantrum. Rock a baby to sleep. Exhausting often. But liable to completely do your head in!? That’s reserved for the teenage years. (All those with little ones, please feel free to vent . . . er, I mean, comment).

Yet, I do think watching children grow up is simply one of the most life-changing, beautiful, gratifying, soul-destroying, life-enhancing, satisfying, agonizing things that a person can experience.

Growth is good. Always. It often hurts but it’s good.

That Jesus grew up, I find deeply reassuring. We’re told he ‘grew in wisdom.’ He was Wisdom. How did that work? Surely, it can only mean that he acquired knowledge of his world just like any other boy. And that, therefore, must have meant . . . homework! Oh yes, the Teenage Burden, even for Jesus. In the Luke passage, we’re told that he grew up just after we’ve read about his extraordinary mastery of the OT Law, surrounded by rabbis in the temple. No, it didn’t mean he simply downloaded his knowledge of the OT via his divine nature. It means he studied hard. Really hard. (Are you listening, son?) He studied hard. And he reaped the rewards. Great wisdom.

That he limited himself in a human body and in that human body he grew up in a similar fashion to any other Middle Eastern boy of his day, well, we talk about identification a lot. In his suffering, Christ identifies with us. Suffers like us. And in his growing up, he was . . . well, perhaps he was a little like my son. Perhaps Mary called to him to come to dinner, waited for a minute or two, then went into the living room and shouted ‘NOW!’

No one said being a teenager was a sin . . . though no doubt some parents are tempted down that road.

I thank my heavenly father that my Lord was once a teenager, no doubt with smelly shoes and, who knows, maybe even an attitude at times. He knows our world because he has lived in it with a real human body, a human nature and all that goes with that. He knows intimately the intricacies of human family relationships, having grown up in a family.

I despair of myself, sometimes, when in dealing with my children, I’m tempted to reach for those over-used parental words, In my day, we used to . . . How much better simply to remind myself that my Lord knows what my kids go through because he was once their age, as astonishing as that sounds. He knows them, can strengthen them; he loves them and he’s with us as a family, having lived in one himself.

May that be a reassuring and encouraging truth to you, if you’re a parent with teenagers. And if you have little ones, well, all I can say is . . . it just gets better and better!

Our favourite family show of the moment is The Middle. If you’re a parent and you haven’t yet seen this show, you’re missing out. Borrow a box-set. Let me leave you with some wisdom from Rev. Tim-Tom, the friendly guitar-playing pastor:

Jesus was a teenager too,
Beneath the long hair, awkwardness, pimples . . . King of the Jews
A lonely teenage Saviour no one could understand
Awkward on the outside, but inside a wise young man,
Yeah, Jesus was a teenager too.
Hmm, yes he was . . .

© Richard Collins 2014

Do share with one of those buttons down there. And click here for a longer version of Infants’ Toys.

The Maze Runner

This past weekend, I finished reading The Maze Runner by James Dashner. Then my son, Luke, and I went to see the movie. As is so often the case, the book was far better than the film. We both agreed on that. Nevertheless, both were entertaining.

Whenever I read any fiction of watch any movie, TV show or even go to the theatre (rarely, sadly), I’m always on the lookout for connections between the story and the Story; themes which affirm that the one Story which is most profoundly true is still leaving echoes inside human beings, even broken ones. It seems that we simply cannot tell stories without reflecting in numerous ways the deeper reality of who we are, what we need, what we desire, what we long for, why we matter . . . I could go on. And every time I read stories, I’m reminded of how astonishingly vacuous, misguided, colourless and profoundly untrue is the Story given by our culture. I speak, of course, of secularism humanism. Materialism. Atheism. A story so unutterably awful and false, it deserves to be shamed every time it rears its ugly head.

Time plus Matter plus Chance is no Story to hang your hat on. It is devoid of Hope.

What are stories? They are the means by which we discover meaning. That verb I use advisedly. Discover. Filmmakers don’t necessarily think through the deeper themes of what they communicate. Sometimes they do – the Wachowski brothers, the Cohen brothers are exceptions, perhaps – but mostly, they unwittingly reveal Truth simply by reflecting on what makes humans tick, what drives us, what we desire, the forces with which we wrestle. The best ones know instinctively what makes a great story. They can recognize a great script and what is needed to turn it into a beautiful work of art.

And then, of course, there’s just old-fashioned entertainment. Make stuff blow up and male teens are hooked. Let’s call that our baser nature!

So, what connections, what cracked mirrors did I find in The Maze Runner? Here are a few:

Contains mild spoilers.

The boys are sent to a glade in the middle of a giant maze by people called Creators. Captivity is bad. They desire freedom.

The Creators, who have imprisoned them, are considered the enemy. A dystopian vision of the future is a very common theme nowadays.

The boys live in community, each one learning to do a job necessary for the survival of the group. They must work together to survive.

The boys who are sent to the Glade don’t know who they are. They can only remember their names. Loss of core identity causes great pain.

One boy, however, is different. He’s the main character called Thomas. He is a salvation figure, who goes through a process of self-discovery as his memory returns gradually. (Done well in the book, very badly in the film). He is opposed by a boy who’s angry, who blames him for their condition. Thomas has a real-life enemy who’s trying to obstruct him in his quest to save the group.

The boys have a clear purpose: to escape from the Maze. They discover a code – meaning – which helps them work out how to escape from the Maze. The Creators, they discover, have set them a test. Strength, perseverance, working as a team, bravery are the qualities needed to pass the test.

Yet . . .

Protecting the weak is good. In an agonizing scene near the end, our hero, who has led his people to freedom – echoes of the Exodus – is unable to save his friend. It’s a moving moment in the book. Less so in the film.

Not surprisingly, there is the inevitable scene in which one of the boys sacrifices himself to save another.

Drenched with pathos and heart-rending to watch – mirroring as it does the greatest act of love performed on earth – paying the ultimate price for the sake of another will always move an audience to tears.

Which is as it should be.

Purpose. Value. Meaning.

Stories don’t work without this Holy Triumvirate. Characters must have value or we won’t care what happens to them. They must have a clear purpose. They must have a challenge to overcome. Actions must mean something and that meaning is related to the first two, that humans are valuable and we’re here for a reason. It seems so blindingly obvious, you’re probably wondering why I’m writing it down.

Because we need reminding.

All stories contain themes, tarnished reflections of the True Story. That human beings really are valuable. Not just for the purpose of a story, but really, truly valuable. That humans really do have a purpose on this planet. That actions contain meaning. It matters what choices you make because there is order – a way things should be – to the universe and even in our brokenness, we are still able to perceive it, though dimly.

And that’s why Time plus Matter plus Chance is so unutterably awful. No value. No purpose. No meaning. No . . . the way things should be. And of course, no Hope.

And it’s why our Big Story is not just wonderful because it is true. It is wonderful because it makes sense of our stories and our lives. C.S. Lewis once wrote,

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

And every time I read a story or watch a movie, I see the shining lights of Value, Purpose and Meaning, telling me that I’m valuable; I have a purpose, my actions mean something.

Now which book shall I read next . . . ?

© Richard Collins 2014

Love and Death

I wrote this piece quite a few years ago when I lived in Southern California, when my son, Luke, was a small boy. Now he’s the second tallest in our family. I think I have two years left – maybe – before he takes my top spot! Anyway, here are some reflections on love and death. A book could be written on the connection between love and death, of course, but here’s a start.

Sentimental? Well, okay . . . perhaps. So for those of you with tender hearts, enjoy.

~~~~~~~~~

LOVE AND DEATH

My son smiles at me from the photograph pinned to my computer screen. He has an impish grin on his face. Mischief is on his mind. It’s a look that tells me he anticipates with relish all that life has to offer. He is five years old. He has his whole life ahead of him.

I love my son . . . so much it hurts. I cherish him. He is dear to me beyond description. Such emotion has the power to overwhelm, engulf and finally suck the life out of me. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the tenderness I feel sometimes affects my ability to breathe. It’s as though love is starting to kill me.

Love and death. Irrevocably linked. “I would die for you.” “I love her to death.” If we’re human, we have either heard or said something similar. John Keats, the romantic poet wrote,

I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for their religion –
I have shudder’d at it.
I shudder no more.
I could be martyr’d for my religion
Love is my religion
And I could die for that.
I could die for you.

And we connect with the sentiment. After all, it is axiomatic in Scripture that true love leads to death. It is called the gospel of Jesus Christ.

My son sits on my lap and struggles with his reading lesson. He’s twisting and turning and complaining that he’s tired. I’m also tired. It’s been a long day, and it’s a little late to be working out words like “little” and “getting.” Especially when you’re only just five. But we’re here and we’re committed. Except that we’ve been on Lesson 57 for quite a while now.

We sit down for dinner. All five of us. Within minutes, my son has crawled onto my lap. He’s too big to be doing this, but he hasn’t seen his father all day, and he wants me to hug him. I push him off a few times, run out of patience, and then hug him. Satisfied, he returns to his food. Two minutes later, he’s back on my lap. It’s hard to eat with a five-year old wrapped around your neck.

I run into the hospital room where my son is lying clutching his finger. The top came off in a door at the YMCA and, on hearing the news, I have not just broken the speed limit, but almost burnt out my car’s engine on my drive to see him. He tries to be brave for daddy, but he can’t help dissolving into tears when he sees me. I hold him close and the world stops. It’s not moving at all. I’m sure of it. Love has met eternity. Right there in that little room.

Love stops time; exists for us within time, yet is above and beyond it. “He is not a lover who does not love forever,” wrote Euripides thousands of years ago. Shakespeare echoes the sentiment when he writes,

My bounty is as boundless as the sea.

My love as deep, the more I give to thee,

The more I have, for both are infinite.

Love draws us to the eternal, and while infinity may contain the same connotations, it is not the same. Infinity speaks of something that never ends, but the biblical meaning of eternity has to do with relationship, not time. When the Bible talks of eternity, it has in view something qualitative, best expressed in John’s gospel. “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

That they may know you. To know and be known. Isn’t that the essence of love? To hold and be held by our God. I have a photograph at work in which my son sits on my lap and looks up at me, smiling. He was three when it was taken. He adores me in that photograph. And I look down at him in love. For me, it is a picture of eternity.

“Can we do hiding, daddy?” Luke runs into our bedroom, jumps on the bed, and hides under the covers. I delay a minute or so, until I hear him calling “Come and find me!” whereupon I come into the room declaring loudly, “Where’s Luke? I wonder where he can be?” The covers start moving and muffled giggles can be heard, especially when I wriggle my hand underneath and start tickling. “There he is!” I gather him to myself and hug him. His joy at being found is only equaled by my joy at finding and then holding him.

I have eternity in my arms.

© Richard Collins 2014