Saturday, October 17, 2020

Stuck in But not Stuck!


The police were at our door again this week. I say 'again' because they came a few weeks ago when I was in self-isolation before. Now, they parked their car ostentatiously outside our little home and one of the officers approached the door checking his clipboard. The neighbours must have thought they had been called to a 'domestic', or that perhaps there had been a break-in while we were away, but no, this was just a 'welfare check' during our compulsory self-isolation. Our only crime was to leave the island and return again, having visited a place soaked in viral degradation - JERSEY!

The fines levied on those who have broken self-isolation recently have been eye-watering - thousands of pounds per offence.  We are thankful to our neighbours and the wonderful fellowship at Vazon Church for the meeting of all our needs so that we have been able to stay locked away, but are really looking forward to being free in a few days if our test is negative.

Guernsey has taken the pandemic very seriously, as our police visit shows, and have, so far, been successful in keeping levels of infection very low (just one person at present). There is a price to pay though. Apart from the period of house arrest that returning travellers or visitors must endure, there is the sense of being cut off from the rest of the world. Families are forced to remain apart. We long for that freedom to return, though we accept that sacrifices must be made in the short term.

Thankfully, the word of God is not bound and prayer knows no borders. We can link up with folk in every nation to seek God's blessing and peace for them where they are. Dear friends battling Covid 19 infections in the UK, churches forced to close their buildings and shut down singing and much of their youth and children's work, pastors and their families facing destitution and even prison in countries where their faith puts them at the back of the queue for assistance. No, we may be stuck in but we are most certainly not stuck. There is a vital work to do, no matter how restricted our circumstances.

And how about you? If chronic illness or pain are keeping you away from others, or infection or the fear of infection limiting your ability to socialise, let this be a season of waiting on God. We will meet again, as Her Majesty famously said, but till then, remember the words of the hymn-writer Oswald Allen (1816-1878):

'When all things seem against us,

To drive us to despair,

We know one gate is open,

One ear will hear our prayer'.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Eyes Have It!


Early in my broadcasting career I learned an interesting fact. Radio listeners can hear you smile! I try to remember that whenever I am on air today. Does the same hold true for face-masks? I wonder. Some folk say that you can still see someone is smiling in their eyes. In this photo that seems to be the case, but is it always so? I think that the widespread muzzling of populations, whilst a necessary precaution against the spread of infection, robs us of one very important feature of healthy life. The ability to give and receive smiles.

My wife has a friend in Wales, Sheila by name, and when we lived there they used to go out walking together. Sheila would often squeeze Diane's arm as strangers approached and say 'let's see if we can get one back!'. With that, they would both smile at the passer by and very often were met with indifference, but sometimes got rewarded in return! It's not just a virus that can be infectious - so can a kindly smile!

Despite there being drastic differences between human cultures and the way we express ourselves, psychologists have discovered that facial expressions have a degree of universality that transcends time and place. There are thousands of ways of moving the muscles in our faces to express and reinforce one of the six basic emotions: anger, disgust, enjoyment, fear, sadness, and surprise. 

And the most powerful and profound facial expression of them all? The smile.

Smiling is universally considered to be a way we display joy. It can communicate our internal world to people on the outside, and it can be a welcoming sign to new people. It speaks of security and well-being, and disarms the stranger with a hint of approach-ability and welcome.

So, if the face-mask is hiding this basic tool of communication and warmth, even in part, how can we replace or supplement it? Well, I suppose one way would be to look for opportunities to do random acts of kindness. To serve in humble ways, and in honour preferring others. Our social media posts should reflect our smile, not our scowl. Our words should be well-chosen to sift out negativity, gossip and grumbling. I read this in the newsletter of some missionary friends this week:

"I choose to turn from complaint, from seeing all that is wrong and lacking, and to acknowledge - even more, Oh Spirit of God, to celebrate - how you are at work in our work, in our church, in our lives (taken from Teach us to Pray by Gordon Smith)".

For God's sake - smile more please! And for your own sake too. It can make all the difference.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

House Arrest

 I am under house arrest. Following my short trip to Newcastle in the North East of England I am now enduring at least 7 days of self-isolation, plus however long it takes for my Covid-19 test result to come back. Thankfully, if the result is negative, I will be released next week, but in a few days the NE of England will be reclassified as high risk due to an upsurge in cases, and I would be required to isolate for the full 14 days if I had traveled then.

I can pace around the garden but must not leave the premises. Yesterday the door bell rang. I opened the upstairs window and called out 'hello?' only to find a burly police officer standing outside. 'Just a welfare check' he claimed. 'Tell it to the marines' I thought, remembering the half a dozen folk who have been fined up to £10,000 for being caught outside their homes in the last few weeks.

In many ways, of course, those of us who have known chronic illness over the years, have been here before. 'Welcome to my world!' you might say. Long-term illness and pain isolates you. It cuts you off from human comfort and touch. Robs you of the joys of fellowship and the ability to go out and enjoy the outside world. And it's hard.

This isolation, without the right to an hour's exercise and no ability to go and buy goods at all, reawakens my sympathy for those who have been shielding during this pandemic. But it also clarifies for me the immense frustration that the Apostle Paul must have felt during his two year house arrest in Rome. Not only could he not go out for exercise, or attend church at all, he may well have been chained to a Roman soldier for much of the time as well!

Yet it is possible, even likely, that he wrote his famous letter to the Philippians during this period. It is an epistle marked by joy. The word recurs again and again. He prays with joy (1:4), rejoices that his chains have given him opportunities to share his faith (1:18), and chooses rejoicing in God instead of grumbling and complaining (2:17-18). He expresses joy at the gifts people were placing outside his door (4:10-14), and he not only expresses his own joy in God, but he urges folk who know Christ to 'rejoice always and again I say, rejoice!' (4:4).

So, I am going to try and treat this period of compulsory self-isolation in a more positive way. If you are shielding, or know someone who is, thank God for modern technology that keeps us in contact with others, and use it to be encouraged and to cheer others on. But, if you, like me, are tasting the long weary challenging days of house arrest, then I can do no better than recommend the letter Paul wrote from his Roman first century AirBnB.

After all, 'I can do all this through him who gives me strength' (Phil. 4:13).

Friday, September 04, 2020

Just Breathe

 I once forgot how to breathe. I had been given a much stronger dose of an opiate painkiller in a skin patch format - Fentanyl - many times stronger than conventional morphine. As in the cases where people overdose on this drug, either intentionally or otherwise, the patch suppressed my breathing mechanism. I very nearly died that day. A friend who was a nurse coached me how to breathe until the ambulance arrived, but the simplest and probably most reflex action of my life, breathing, had become a stranger to me. I will never forget the relief of being able to breathe again.

Covid-19 is a respiratory disease. It also attacks the immune system and other aspects of the body's defences, but it is as a lung disease that it has become notoriously efficient. This makes it terrifying to watch sufferers struggling for breath, and survivors left often unable to catch enough breath to speak. A colleague of mine, who survived a potentially deadly attack of the virus and a spell on a ventilator, was advised to do breathing exercises as part of his recovery. He said that the medics also advised him that good breathing etiquette was one way of preparing to be able to face the onslaught of the disease. Whether that is right or not, we don't use much of our lung capacity most of the time. It is good to stand up straight, exhale fully and then inhale to a fuller extent than we normally do.

We need to breathe spiritually too. The Holy Spirit is pictured as God's breath or as a gust of wind, to help us to realise how much we need his presence and power in our lives. In the original picture of God's creating power he is said to have breathed into the nostrils of the first human being and he became a living being. Some believe this is the moment when mankind received its soul or spiritual nature. Whatever, we are spiritual beings and we need God like we need to breathe.

I would never have imagined that I might forget how to breathe. Illness put me into that vulnerable place and I barely escaped with my life. There may be many reasons why we might forget how to have a spiritual life - illness can be one - but there's no time like the present to put that right.

Years ago we used to sing 'Breathe on me breath of God, fill me with life anew'. That still makes sense as a prayer today, especially in the time of a breathing pandemic.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Is there any Choice?


So begins election season. Here in Guernsey we will hold a general election on October 7th and in the USA there will be a presidential poll in November. We get to choose those who will rule over us, or so the theory goes. In our island we will each have 38 votes - the size of the Assembly - and with well over 100 candidates expected to stand, the ballot paper will probably look like wall-paper! In America the choice will be between two elderly white men. One seems to offer very poor personal credentials but a canny knack of making and losing money, while the other seems well-meaning but lightweight. Probably his biggest claim to fame is that he is not his opponent! Ah well, such is democracy (or what is left of it).

Sorry if that sounds a bit cynical, but to my mind, in the midst of a global pandemic and worst recession on record,  elections seem a bit of an interruption. Yet, they are important simply because of that one over-riding feature - we are called to exercise choice. 'Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve' says Joshua, the ancient leader of Israel and fighter of the famous battle of Jericho. And choice is a recurring Biblical theme. Moses challenged God's people to choose life and blessing instead of death and destruction (Deut 30:19) and Jesus challenged his followers to choose to do God's will (John 7:17).

Last week I chose gratitude instead of regret on the occasion of my 68th birthday (see my blog for Sat 22nd Aug 2020). In a few weeks I will choose 38 Deputies to sit in the States of Deliberation. A few weeks later millions of Americans will choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee (naughty I know!!). 

BUT - the whole point is that we have the freedom to choose. And that's how it is in our walk with God. Choose life - choose Jesus - choose grace! Just as in our elections we make our choice by means of a cross, God has made His choice of Jesus clear in just that way too. At the cross God voted for Jesus as the way to life, hope and eternity. Now that's not irrelevant - that's vital. Cast your vote today.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Choosing Gratitude


Today - I am grateful. Thankful that I am still alive and with my wonderful wife, Diane. Really thrilled to be free from pain and recovered from 22 years of the most appalling agony of chronic pancreatitis. On this my birthday I give thanks to God for his amazing grace, love and his faithfulness to me over 68 years. 

In the midst of a global pandemic I am rejoicing that God is still in charge, and that the virtues of self-sacrifice, love for one's fellow people, and care for the sick and dying, that Jesus so exemplified in his life, are still being shown around us. I see immense pain and suffering on every hand, but I also see the compassion of Christ writ large.

I choose gratitude. It is not always easy. Jesus taught us that gratitude should be our attitude in what we call 'The Beatitudes'. Light chases away darkness. Hope dispels gloom. Love expels fear.

I don't blame the government, or my upbringing, or the shady hand of 'lady luck', for anything that has happened in my life, or is going on in the world around me. There is an intruder in God's good creation. The pandemic and my decades of agony, are his fingerprints. But there are other marks I choose to concentrate upon. Nail prints for instance. The scars from a crown of thorns. A discarded stone and an empty tomb.

So, the best gift I can receive today is the one that sets me free. Free from bitterness and self-pity. Free to be me! Free to say 'Thank you Lord!' and mean it. I choose to be grateful.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Pandemic Milestones: centuries apart!

 Making memories. We do it every day, mostly without realising it. This weekend a friend of mine will celebrate her 103rd birthday! Happy birthday Myra! Her long life must be so crammed with memories. Born towards the end of the First World War, the second last child of ten, Myra must have entered a world of challenges. None would be greater, probably, than the pandemic of 1918-1919. Over 500 million people were infected at that time and it is estimated that 20-50 million died, including 115 in Guernsey, the island of Myra's birth. That puts the 2020 pandemic into proportion, although we mourn the passing of so many from Covid-19, (up to 16 of them were in Guernsey, though now Covid free).

So much has changed in Myra's world. Horse and buggy has given way to supersonic airliners, and man has even stepped onto the moon. Communications in 1917/18 would have been largely word of mouth, or through very early forms of telephone and telegrams. No computers, no mobiles, no television. The BBC didn't exist then and would not for a few years. But life and death were the same at that time, and the world must have been gripped with fear and mourning, much as it is now.

This same weekend that Myra is 103, Primrose will be dedicated in a simple family ceremony at our church. Born into a repeat pandemic, I wonder how much the world will change in her lifetime? We will be praying God's blessing on her little life and thanking God for the gift of her. But, as her family begins to make new memories with their little one, it is so important to make room for God's love and guidance, just as Myra has done.

Making memories comes from making choices - good choices - even in the midst of pandemics and pain. Parents bringing their infant to be blessed and seeking God's help for their family and her future. That's a good choice. For Myra, I know that the choice she made to follow Jesus when she was a young woman, has kept her faithful in service of others and the Lord throughout her days. What an example!