Blessings #201 – Seen, Heard and Known

Some of the deepest desires of people are to be seen, to be heard and to be known.

I can remember many times when I have been none of these things, often in the busiest of places. Think about the busy train station with thousands of people passing through now imagine the effort that you would have to go through to get the attention of all of those people.

Sometimes we see people, but we don’t want to hear them. The other day I was walking through the centre of Preston and was really conscious of the number of homeless people sat by the side of the pavement. It’s almost impossible not to see them, but few of us will take the time to sit and listen to them. In Chester the other day everyone was keeping wide of a man stood by a poster board and handing out religious leaflets.

A few weeks ago I was sat on a plane next to an older lady who was returning from a trip to America where she attended a sister’s funeral. While there she had decided that she needed a full cowboy outfit as memory of the adventure; this included cowboy boots, fancy jeans, denim jacket and hat. It must have been an interesting experience because she can’t have been more than 4′ tall and was a very slender lady. I imagine that she was fitted out in children’s clothes. She wanted to talk about her experience and I was happy to listen.

We’ve recently celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary and marked it with a gathering of friends. We received many cards and handed around a book for people to write their thoughts in. Reading the two sets of messages together it was striking how we were known by so many people in so many different ways.

Most Wednesday morning’s I meet with a couple of close friends for breakfast. As a group we have been through many highs and many lows together. This week I needed these friends to know about the highs of holidays and also some significant challenges in my life. This time and place is one where I can know that whatever else has happened I will be seen, I will be heard and I will be known. Thanks Dave. Thanks Bob.

The Genesis story describes the separation between people and God. The first sign of this is that Adam and Eve go to hide because they don’t want to be seen or heard by God. Many of Jesus parables tell us of God’s perspective; though we may try to hide God searches for us because He want’s to know us:

The Story of the Lost Sheep

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story.

4-7 “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.

The Story of the Lost Coin

“Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbours: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ Count on it—that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.”

Luke 15

I am so, so grateful to be seen, heard and known. The challenge to us, especially to those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, is to create the places where other’s can also be seen, heard and known. Someone who writes about this is Shauna Niequist. In her book called Bread & Wine she says this:

“The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.”

Hospitality around a table might not be your thing, but we can all create somewhere where others feel significant.

Blessings #200 – The Buzzard Feather

We’ve just returned for a week’s holiday near Lorton in the English Lake District

One of the things I’m currently trying to do is to climb all of the Wainwright peaks so on Tuesday I set off to tick-off a set of peaks stretching from Crummock Water to Derwentwater.

Nearing the end of this walk I was meandering through a field when a Buzzard squawked and launched into the air. It made me jump.

This spectacular bird of prey left behind one of it’s magnificent feathers, a wing feather I think.

Feathers are amazing feats of engineering. They are strong and yet very light, supporting a bird to amazing heights and magnificent speeds. They are only connected to the body of the bird with a narrow quill. The barbs and barbules that make up the vanes are intricately detailed tiny pieces of keratin woven together to be highly resistant to the air.

As the feathers layer together with the other feathers on the wing they form the perfect shape for flying.

The structure of a feather is a marvel, but feathers aren’t just functional, they are decorative too. The feather that I picked up was a piece of art in its own right with patterns of rich browns.

Alongside the other feathers on the bird each one forms part of a pattern that marks out each bird as a member of its species.

God is a God of detail too:

“What’s the price of two or three pet canaries? Some loose change, right? But God never overlooks a single one. And he pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—even numbering the hairs on your head! So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk. You’re worth more than a million canaries. (?Luke? ?12?:?6-7? MSG)

Blessings #199 – My Stories, Our Stories

We’ve been out for the day today with friends. On the way home we started talking about our pasts, primarily about the food that we used to eat.

I’m not sure why it was food that got us talking about bygone days but it was the trigger to all sorts of reminiscing.

Sue’s dad has been talking for a while about recording some of his stories. We’ve heard many of them before, but there is no permanent record of them. He wants to record them as a kind of history of a life that no longer exists.

We each have a history that is punctuated by stories that contribute to our personality and character.

They aren’t just my stories though, I share them with the other people involved in the events. On our day we were looking at the story of Elkanah, Ramah and Hannah (1 Samuel 1). The star of this story is Hannah, but that doesn’t make Elkanah and Ramah redundant.

This story has twists and turns, results in the birth of Samuel one of the greatest of Israel’s prophets. I don’t think that any of the stories that I am living are quite that significant, but they may be, who am I to know?

Hannah’s story has survived thousands of years; I don’t expect mine to have such a long life. Again, I don’t know that they won’t, I just don’t think that they will.

Whether my stories are nationally significant or have millennial longevity doesn’t really matter.  These are my stories and that’s enough, they are part of who I am and for the most part I regard them as a blessing.

I’ve been thinking about how to live a good story. For a long while I thought that a good story came as the result of success. I wouldn’t have said that success was my motivator if you’d asked me, but my actions said something different. The better story that I am now trying to live is one of a follower because a good story comes from faithfulness.

“We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose. It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story. How brightly a better story shines. How easily the world looks to it in wonder. How grateful we are to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them.” 

Donald Miller

(I’ve been thinking about writing some of my stories on this blog as a bit of an occasional series)

Blessings #198 – Personal Proverbs

I am one of those people who carries around a moleskine notebook, those black ones with a piece of elastic around them to hold them together. Even though I spend all of my working life with technology, my preferred method of taking notes is still with a pencil and paper.

In the back of my current moleskine there are a couple of pages that are titled “Lessons – 2013/2014”. As I learn things throughout the lifetime of a notebook I add them to these pages to the rear.

A proverb is a short, well-known pithy saying, stating a general truth or piece of advice; these lessons are my personal proverbs. These words contain sayings that I’ve heard, or read, that have stuck with me and some that I have been inspired enough to create, but rarely. A saying has to really stick to become a personal proverb, it’s not good enough for it to sound like a wise saying, it has to teach me something significant and be worthy of revisiting.

The current notebook includes a period of time when I was off work with stress related issues, so many of the current proverbs reflect the lessons that I’m still trying to learn from that time.

The best proverbs reside in a time and a place, I can tell you where I heard or read many of the current sayings.

I regularly turn to this set of proverbs to remind myself of the wisdom that they contain. This is particularly true on frustrating or stressful days.

You’ll see a picture of my current notebook at the top of this post, but I’ll replay some of the personal proverbs here for those of you who struggle with my left-handed scrawl:

Focus on faithfulness not greatness.

Stop, be alone, meditate.

Bring the weight of who you are.

No point in focussing on not doing things.

Do what you love.

Routine is more important than you think.

Failure is a day, not a destiny; an iteration not an identity.

Happiness is found in results and relationships.

The book of proverbs in the Bible begins like this:

These are the wise sayings of Solomon,
David’s son, Israel’s king –
Written down so we’ll know how to live well and right,
to understand what life means and where it’s going;
A manual for living,
for learning what’s right and just and fair;
To teach the inexperienced the ropes
and give our young people a grasp on reality.
There’s something here also for seasoned men and women,
still a thing or two for the experienced to learn –
Fresh wisdom to probe and penetrate,
the rhymes and reasons of wise men and women.

Proverbs 1

I’m not seeking to write a manual for living but I am recognising that there is still a thing or two for the experienced to learn because I want to live well and right. The book of Proverbs contains some wonderful wisdom and deserves repeated visits.

Blessings #197 – Laughing Anyway

Yesterday was an eventful day. My plan was to fly to Munich, Germany for two days of workshops with a customer, the result was somewhat different.

At the beginning of the week the weather forecast was for a reasonably sized storm to pass over the UK some time on Wednesday or Thursday. As the week went on the situation looked increasingly severe with the Met Office eventually declaring a Red Weather warning, which is as bad as these things get.

I checked with the airline and was told that they were still planning on flying and that I should make my way to the airport. Expecting the roads to be problematic I travelled early and made my way through security.

Having plenty of time available I stopped off for a coffee and chose a seat by the window overlooking the airport apron. The wind was really starting to pick up; so much so that the building was humming with the vibrations and there was a draft forcing its way through the seams around the windows.

After a short while I made my way to the gate and watched the windows flex in the high winds and wondered about the flight. The building was rattling and everyone was avoiding sitting underneath the large glass dome in the middle. Everything outside was moving in the wind; even the wings on the planes parked outside.

Something made me start to smile. People respond to times of potential crisis in different ways and found some of them quite amusing.

There was a lady who walked up to the desk at the gate, huffed at the lack of personnel, walked across the room and huffed at the wind blowing against the windows, and then back again, and on, and on. I’m sure that she had no idea what she was doing, but it made me chuckle inside.

There was a group of middle-aged men who were regressing to their childhood years with lots of wow’s and ooo’s.

Eventually there was an announcement on the television screens:

Apologies for the delay please take a seat

It was clear that the weather was making things very difficult.

Then an announcement to say that there was a delay because the plane hadn’t landed yet.

Then another update on the screen:

Flight cancelled

Followed by an announcement over the public address to tell us that the incoming flight had been diverted to Brussels (of all places) and that we wouldn’t be going anywhere tonight.

Immediately everyone was on their feet, as if someone had sent a bolt of electricity through all the chairs. This made me snigger too; what did they think they were going to do now they were on their feet? Some people even went running off back towards the security area. Many people reached for their phones.

Shortly afterwards the staff explained everything. We were to go through the gate and down to collect our luggage and then to join the queue for the ticket office. As you might expect this was greeted with all sorts of moans and groans. I just chuckled; what did they expect?

Progressing through to the baggage area was quite painless although the people running down the corridor to be first waiting for their bags to arrive made me smile once more.

When we got to the ticket office we discovered that this wasn’t the only flight that had been cancelled for this airline, all of the passengers from another two flights were already ahead of us. The queue was huge and there were only a couple of desks. I joined the back of the queue and waited. There was a mum, baby and little girl in front of me. The little girl had picked up on the idea that this was something unusual and she thought it was an adventure. “Mummy this is exciting”. They had a lot of travelling left to do and Munich was only the first step in their journey. Mum wasn’t at all convinced, I smiled at the different perspective.

G.K. Chesterton once said:

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

After standing for several minutes in one queue those of us without connecting flights were ushered into a different queue. This new queue was just as long as the old one and going absolutely nowhere. A couple of hours had passed since our flight had been cancelled. Occasionally someone would go to the desk and sometimes they would leave holding a piece of paper; sometimes they would approach the desk and then re-join the queue. Behind me was an American gentleman who was a salesman. He had all sorts of sales meetings lined up for the following day in Frankfurt. In front were some German businessmen on their way to Dusseldorf. A community spirit was starting to build.

A ripple of excitement passed along the line: “Anyone for Dusseldorf come this way.” Off went the German businessmen with smiles on their faces like prisoners released. The American salesman and I started spontaneously celebrating each little bit of progress. We applauded everyone who was liberated from the queue, we gave a little cheer at every inch of progress towards the desk. People around us started joining in. It helped to make the many minutes pass quite pleasantly.

A ripple of excitement made its way along the line; a new plan was being enacted. Rather than book everyone individually they had got the central booking team to rebook everyone and all of the new schedules were churning out of a printer. Staff came forward with handfuls of paper and started calling names. One of the first ones to be called was the American salesman, I smiled and congratulated him. He was delighted, perhaps he would make some of his sales meetings after all. Scenes of congratulation went around the gathering as different people were released from the queue with a new plan and a hotel for the night. But still some people moaned; “why hasn’t my information come through, I was nearer the front of the queue than they were?”

About half way through the gathered group it was my turn to receive my piece of paper and be given my new schedule. A flight in the morning with a different airline and a hotel for the night in the interim. here was no point in trying to go home because all of the major roads were closed. All I had to do was to go downstairs and get on a shuttle bus to the chosen hotel. I made my way to the place where I had been instructed (and where the signs pointed to); I waited and waited, and waited, but no shuttle bus. About twenty or thirty people joined me at the bus-stop all German apart from me.

A shuttle-bus arrived for another hotel so I went to ask whether he knew anything. He told me that we were in the wrong place and instructed me where we needed to be. It was then that I became amateur tour guide. The instructions had been given in a thick Mancunian accent and no-one else had understood. So off I went with the crowd following. There was a mini-bus waiting with room for three so off they went. A while later two more mini-buses came and in I got along with the rest of my tour group.

It was nearly three hours since our flight had been cancelled.

Once in the mini-bus we sat and we waited, but we didn’t move. “Why are we waiting?” I asked the driver. The reason was that the hotel we were supposed to be going to was full. So I sat in a mini-bus in the road at Manchester Airport amongst a group of bemused Germans, I joked with them that this was the way we liked to do thinks in Britain, they joked that this was down to German pilots being unable to land the plane, we chuckled together.

Eventually a new hotel plan was communicated; we were to be transferred to a hotel in Blackburn, Lancashire. The centre of Blackburn is only 10 miles from my house; the hotel I suspect they were going to use is only 5 miles from my house. I decided that if the mini-bus thought it could get through then so could I, despite the major roads still being closed.

Leaving the mini-bus I made my way back into the terminal to pay for a day’s car parking and then out to the bus stop for the transfer bus back to the car park. It was now just after ten and it turns out that the buses to the car park run very infrequently after ten (according to one of the bus drivers travelling a different route). I walked to the car park, smiling to myself at the day’s events.

The journey home was reasonably painless. Thankfully everyone else had heeded the advice of the authorities and the roads through Manchester’s city centre were empty apart from a few which had trees in them. I made it home for a little after eleven knowing that I would have to be up again before five thirty in the morning to do the whole thing all over again. Six hours sleep in your own bed is definitely better than eight in a hotel though.

I’m not sure why I found all of these events so amusing but I have a couple of suspicions.

A friend of ours is in a very difficult place medically and he was recently telling us about the laughter that keeps welling up in him. Perhaps I was subconsciously thinking that if it was good enough for him and his circumstances it was definitely good enough for me and mine.

The other reason is that I have to confess to not really wanting to go on this business trip. There are many reasons for this, but one of them was a worry that things would go wrong and that it would get messy. Things, of course, did go wrong and it was messy, but so what, my worry didn’t make a bit of difference to it. Rather than worry and be grumpy I chose laughter.

There was something of God in the way that I experienced yesterday. I wasn’t, at all, in the place where I felt like laughing until it all started to unravel. It was only after it got messy that I started to see the lighter side of it.

Woody Allen apparently once said:

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”

I don’t quite see it like that. I see it more like this: God laughs with us in our plans; whether they work out the way we want them to or not.

This morning I got up early in Preston, drove to Manchester Airport, parked the car and flew out of a sunny Manchester on a Singapore Airlines flight along with half of the other people from the queues the night before. The views across England were glorious and the arrival in Munich was lovely.

As I waited in the gate for my rescheduled flight this morning there were lots of knowing looks between people. One German lady I spoke to, who had been part of my tour group had been one of those that got into the mini-bus that was leaving as we got there. When she got to the hotel there were no rooms left, but she was offered the spare bed in a room by a British lady who was listening to her predicament at the check-in desk. I smiled and we laughed together.

Sunny Manchester

Blessings #196 – A Full Notebook

Most mornings I wake, struggle out of bed, put some clothes on and make my way downstairs.

I turn right at the bottom of the stairs and pick up a couple of things from the study. Crossing the hallway I make my way into the lounge where I sit in an armchair.

Once in the armchair I’ll open up a book or use an application on my phone to focus my thoughts.

I’ll then place the book or my phone onto the windowsill and pick up a black moleskine notebook and pen. Feeling for the marker ribbon I’ll open the notebook to the point where I left it the day before.

My normal routine is to write the date in one corner and to copy something out of the book, or from the application, into the notebook. This is be followed by some of my thoughts and prayers.

Most days I’ll  only use a single page of the notebook; on some days I’ll have more to say. Having captured my thought and prayers I’ll sometimes read through them. Reaching for the marker ribbon I’ll replace it into the completed pages and close the notebook.

The routine is then to sit for a bit longer and ponder with the notebook on my lap. Sometimes I listen to a spoken prayer or some quiet music.

I call this time my 15 minutes in a chair because that’s my aim, to stop at the beginning of each day, for 15 minutes.

Picking up the notebook and the other things around me I return them to the study and get on with the rest of my day.

This week, though, I did something different. This week was a milestone. This week I closed the notebook, thanked it for its service, and returned it to the shelf. It’s accompaniment on my journey was over. It had served its purpose and now it was time for another to take its place. All of the pages were used, each had been written upon, each had captured my daily thoughts and my prayers. It’s two years of service were over and it was time for a new notebook to take it’s place.

One of my Christmas presents had been a voucher which I’d used to purchase a new black ruled moleskine notebook. This young upstart was sitting waiting patiently on the shelf ready to serve. I unwrapped it, said “see you tomorrow” and placed it back on the shelf next to its predecessor.

The new notebook still feels new, but soon it will know my ways and open naturally in my hand ready to capture more thought and prayers. It will be my accompaniment on the journey.

Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves.

Luke 22:27

Blessings #195 – Photography Books

I have a number of larger books on my bookshelf and they are nearly all photography books. They’re not books about the mechanics of taking pictures, they are books full of photographs that people have taken, there are some words, but the reason I own them is for the pictures.

They are predominantly nature photographs of one type or another. One is black-and-white and predominantly abstract.  Another contains photographs taken from space showing the most amazing places from a perspective that very few of us will ever experience. There are books that focus on different parts of the beautiful British Isles and some which cover different part of the world. I’m particularly susceptible to photographs of hills and lakes.

Beauty is the best way to describe these pictures that I could think of. Whether they are showing the macro or the micro; whether they are clear and brilliant, or abstract and blurred each one is speaking beauty.

The photographs capture the beauty that is already there, they don’t manufacture it. They encapsulate and frame an honest natural elegance. One of the reasons I don’t like heavily manipulated pictures is because they have lost their honesty.

At one level a picture is just a set of different coloured tiny dot, but that’s the mystery of a picture. The tiny dots come together into patterns that communicate a meaning to us and meaning communicates emotion.

A low resolution picture that is 1024 pixels by 768 pixels showing only 256 colours has over 200 million different combinations of dots available to it. The 8 megapixel camera in my phone can create at least 133 trillion different combinations of coloured dots. That’s a lot of pictures, so many that the human eye wouldn’t be able to perceive the difference between some of them because our eyes aren’t that sensitive.

The dots themselves don’t have a meaning, the meaning comes from the patterns in the dots and what those patterns communicate.

Like all art the photographs communicate all sorts of emotions because of their diverse perspectives and my diverse experiences. The way that I respond to these pictures will likely be different to the way that you respond because my experiences are different. Sometimes, though, we will respond in a similar way because the pictures reflect a shared experience.

These photographs are like miniature stories in a single image. I love sitting looking through these books and experiencing the stories that they tell me, it’s a privilege to participate in the blessings that they bring.

“To the complaint, ‘There are no people in these photographs,’ I respond, There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.”

Ansel Adams

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.”

Ansel Adams