It’s Friday…

 

I work in pensions…

No, don’t go yet! Please!

Thanks. Now, as I was saying, I work in pensions. Specifically, I work in the new business department of a wealth management company which processes new pension applications. In the UK it is currently the end of the tax year and, as a result, my place of work is currently busier than the person changing the list of candidates on the UKIP website. People are desperately trying to put as much by as they can for their old age without being hit for a big tax bill, something especially this year as the amount you can put in over one tax year is about to reduce. It’s amazing how many people leave these things to the last minute and, as a result, we have an immense amount of applications in which we need to process before 6th April. The whole thing is pressure and stress; the stress of not having enough put by for retirement, the stress of getting in before the deadline, the stress of keeping on top of the work, the stress of worrying what happens if things aren’t done on time…

Stress is a fact of modern life. I guess it was probably a part of life for many in days gone by as well. Some stree about work, some are stressed because they have no work. Some stress that they don’t have enough money, some stress that they have none. Some stress about friends and family, some are stressed because they are alone. Some stress about their home while others are stressed about not having a bed for the night. Some are stressed about their weight whilst others are stressed because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. It can consume you, leave you feeling isolated and hopeless, as if there is no escape from your circumstances.

So, we rush around, hurrying about to try to get as much done in the shortest time possible because we worry what’ll happen if we don’t. We cram our lives so full of stuff that we don’t give ourselves time to stop, take stock and think. Being busy, doing things, making money, these are things we are expected to do, things we expect of ourselves, so doing nothing except thinking and reflecting are somehow seen as lazy and counter productive.

However, stopping and being still is exactly what we need to do much of the time, just to a low us to cope with what we have to do.

This is Holy Week, the time when Christians remember the sacrifice of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That death is something Jesus knew was going to happen. He knew how he would die and the suffering and shame that it would entail.

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you will not fall into temptation.’ He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (‭Luke‬ ‭22‬:‭39-44‬ NIVUK)

Now, over the last week I have felt like putting my head through a computer screen, snapping at people who don’t deserve it and throwing all the paper on my desk up into the air in despair. I haven’t at any stage, though, prayed that the work be taken from me and sweated blood! It really is one of those events which makes you take a step back and realise that Jesus went willingly into this situation, but he was utterly terrified of it at the same time.

It’s not death that scared him. He knew that, ultimately, he would be reunited with the father. However, the sheer pain, anguish and humiliation he was about to endure was mind blowing. David Instone-Brewer wrote this insight into crucifixion for Premier Christianity Magazine. It tells of the pain and humiliation from a physical and psychological perspective. It would have been unbearable, and Jesus knew this. This came through in the fear of this prayer; to take the burden from him if there was another way. He knew, though, that there was no other way, and he said that he still submitted to his father’s will.

This is the first point of hope in a semmingly hopeless situation. Luke tells us that an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. I don’t know how that looked or how Jesus was strengthened by this, except for one thing. Jesus was still in anguish, but he kept on praying. Sometimes the times we most need prayer are the times we least feel able to do so. Jesus found the strength in the depths of despair to keep his eyes fixed firmly on his father in heaven, praying for strength and, as we read in John’s Gospel, praying for hid disciples and all believers, knowing what they will go through after his death.

Suddenly, I feel utterly self centred and ridiculous. I have felt under, what I perceive to be, immense pressure at work, then I see Jesus praying for others as he knowingly and willingly approaches the hardest thing any human being has ever had to face. This is astonishing, more so because he is doing this for each and every one of us.

The reason he is able to do this is the reason he is doing it. His arrest, his beatings, his flogging, his mocking, his walk to Golgotha, his hands and feet being nailed to a cross, his shame, his pain and his death were not the end. He cried out that “it is finished”, but it was only his sacrifice for our sins which was finished. There was still one more unbelievable act.

The fact is that hoplessness is temporary. In the case of Jesus’ followers it wAs only a couple of days long. Hopelessness was replaced by hope. The hope that only a miracle can give. Hope that only victory over death can give. Hope that is only there in the risen Jesus, talking to the women by an empty tomb.

Therein lies the whole point. Sometimes things feel hopeless, or just difficult to bear or too stressful to take. They aren’t, they never can be, because Jesus lives.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!

http://youtu.be/sB2en_C4KGk 

What if?

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The next step of my long journey to training for the Readership comes along on Tuesday as I travel to Edinburgh for a 3 hour psychological assessment.

A 3 hour psychological assessment!

I sometimes worry about whether I’m stable enough to keep writing this blog, so the idea of going through something like that is terrifying! What if they realise that I’m only calm and confident on the outside (sometimes) and that, on the inside, I’m a crumbling wreck who is ready for the knacker’s yard? What if they see me as the fraud I am and kick me out of the office within minutes, deeming me unsuitable to even leave the house again, let alone hold a form of Christian ministry? What if…?

The two most destructive words in the English language, if used like this.

What if?

What if it all goes wrong? What if I can’t do it? What if I’m the wrong person? What if nobody agrees?

What if? What if? What if?

But God has a way of turning those destructive words into words of promise, grace and hope.

What if you try?

What if it works?

What if you don’t do it and regret it forever?

What if you are better than you think?

What if you’re stronger than you think?

What if you trust in Me? What if you let Me guide you? What if you let My words and will permeate your mind and soul?

What if? The two most exciting words in the English language if spoken by He through all things are possible?

What if God’s will is for me to preach His word and He has made me into the right person for the job? What if all my doubts, weaknesses and insecurities will actually make me a better preacher and teacher? What if my depression and anxiety are as important to my calling as my way with words and my presentation skills?

What if?

There’s only one way to find out.

Life is not a gamble

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The Believer, Mr Brightside, The Professor, Generous John and Gut Truster. These are the betting men, leading the “Ladbrokes life”. This group of typical “lads”, enjoying some “banter” and getting up to “antics”. This few, this happy few, this band of brothers…

Sorry, I got carried away there!

Anyway, these guys are the new horrendous irritants stars of the adverts for Ladbrokes. They crop up on virtually every advert break on the sports channels along with an almost countless list of other bookies, all creating campaigns trying to entice you to bet with them by showing gambling as the ultimate form of entertainment and communal activity.

They’re not alone. Celebrities like Scary Spice and Barbara Windsor have lent their endorsements to various online bingo sites, whilst other sites tout themselves as places for people to come together and have a chat and a laugh together.

Gambling, since regulation was relaxed in the 1990s, has become a way of life for millions in the UK. An activity, once the domain of rich men in casinos, dodgy characters in smoke filled bookies and old women in bingo halls, is now as ubiquitous as going to the pub. The market has changed as a result. The Gambling Commission report growth in online gambling, football betting and fixed odds betting terminals, whilst on course betting and off course betting on horses and greyhounds are declining.

Now, before I go any further, I have a confession. In a previous job I was the manager of a branch of Ladbrokes in Dorset. I promoted gambling and made my own living from the gambling industry. I enjoyed many aspects of the job, particularly the chance to watch sport all day and meet loads of different people. It was fun, at times, but it was also poorly paid with appalling conditions. 60-90 hour weeks were the norm, still taking home £15k or less as a branch manager. Staff in betting shops are being bled dry by an industry who make massive profits.

However, the staff are the lucky ones. In my time working for Ladbrokes I saw people losing a whole week’s wages within an hour of being paid. I’ve seen men throwing chairs across the shop after losing their food money. I’ve seen people sit at fixed odds betting terminals for whole days, putting hundreds of pounds in and losing, then coming back the next day and doing it all again. I got to the point that my discomfort with the situation was so great that, when finally given the chance (through unfortunate circumstances) I got out.

I’ve also spoken to someone I used to know who was a financial adviser. He said that it was not uncommon to come across people whose future financial planning was based around winning the lottery. Yes, “it could be you”, but that’s a 14,000,000/1 chance; not the odds you should be using to plan your future.

Gamblers Anonymous are seeing increasing numbers at their meetings. Debts caused by gambling are on the increase. Betting companies profits are soaring, as are their advertising and sponsorship revenues.

Shelagh Fogarty highlighted gambling addiction on her BBC Five Live show this week. On it, people with gambling problems spoke of losses of hundreds of thousands of pounds, defrauding their employers out of thousands, losing their jobs, homes and families. They have got themselves into that position,  and would admit that themselves. However, as gambling is made to look more and more like a normal part of daily life in the image of it we’re sold on our TVs,  there can be no doubt that the gambling industry is causing this and profiting wildly from it. This is a highly addictive activity. Addiction is an illness,  but it’s an illness which our society seems all too happy to help cause and exacerbate in the pursuit of cheap thrills, small financial gains and a vain hope.

So, what can we do? Firstly, don’t get dragged into it in the first place. The occasional bet, not a problem. I enter the Lottery (£2 per week, not huge bucks) and will have a flutter on the Grand National. But when you find that you’re betting most days, maybe with more than you can reasonably afford, you need to take a step back.

Don’t be afraid to express concern for a friend if you are worried. Showing love for someone sometimes means letting them know when they may have a problem. You may be knocked back, but if you aren’t then it may be the first step which someone in trouble needs.

Pray for people you know who may have an issue (including yourself), if you are so inclined.

Most of all, recognise that gambling is a false hope. It is something for us to cling to as a method of earning easy money and giving us either a short term or permanent financial boost. The thing is, as the old saying goes, you never see a poor bookie. The odds are always stacked in their favour. You will win occasionally, but you’ll always like more.

Real hope comes elsewhere,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In God’s great mercy he has caused us to be born again into a living hope, because Jesus Christ rose from the dead.” (1 Peter 1:3 NCV)

Real hope doesn’t come from a betting slip, or a mobile phone app, or an online game of bingo or poker. It doesn’t even come from the disembodied floating head of Ray Winstone. It comes from Jesus. Fulfilment comes from Jesus, not the small chance of financial gain. Joy comes from Jesus, not picking who scores the next goal.

With Jesus we are still taking a risk in this life, but we already know that,  ultimately, we are onto a winner. Odds so short that no bookie will ever want to take your money.

As Mr Winstone says,

“Have a bang on that!”

Lent Day 39: John 19-20

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Do you ever get the feeling that you’re missing something? It’s not Good Friday until tomorrow, but here I am writing about the crucifixion and resurrection already. And it’s in a blog post entitled “Lent Day 39” when it’s only day 38 ( I missed a number out near the beginning!).

When the film “The Passion Of The Christ” came out I, like millions of others, went to see it at the cinema. It is a brutal, uncomfortable, but probably intensely real telling of the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, torture and crucifixion. It’s not a film for the faint hearted as you see Christ’s flesh being flayed by Roman whips, his head bleeding from the crown of thorns, his hands and feet have large nails driven through them and his agonising death on the cross. It is incredibly visual, bloody and emotionally draining.

What looks like being the last shot, just before the screen goes dark and the credits roll, is of Jesus’ lifeless body, having been taken down from the cross, laying in the arms of his grief stricken mother, Mary. Through her tears, she looks directly at the camera, breaking the fourth wall with an angry, accusatory look at the audience. In her silence she seems to be saying “This is your fault. You did this to my son. Your sin, your arrogance, ignorance, greed and selfishness have taken him from me.”. And you sit, looking back at her, dumbstruck. Trying to comprehend what you have done to deserve such a look, such a charge.

Then, as all seems lost, there is one last shot. A closed, rocky tomb, filled only with the body of a young man, suddenly radiates with intense light. As the light dies down you see a glimpse of Jesus, no longer dead, stand up and walk.

When I saw the film there were maybe 100-150 people in the cinema with me. You could have heard a pin drop as we walked out in silence, stunned by what we had just seen. The silence was finally broken by one young lad piping up,

“Wow, they’ve really set that up well for a sequel, haven’t they?”

It’s a comment which still amuses me now. But he’s right. The film concentrates only on part of the story of Jesus’ last few days on Earth; the pain and suffering he went through. And rightly so, because he did it for a reason. Mary’s accusatory look towards us at the end is justified because it is our fault. We have let our sin, our pride, arrogance, greed, lust, hatred and all the other self-centered feelings of the world to take over our lives. He went through that agony to break that.

But it wouldn’t have worked had the last bit, only tantalizingly glimpsed in the film, not happened. Jesus rose again! He defeated death and the power it had over us because our sin was killing us all. The resurrection is where the real triumph comes from and where our real hope comes from.

So, that young man in a cinema in Dorset was spot on. They did leave it open for a sequel. The thing is, the sequel has been and is being made. We are all living it, right now. Every moment on Earth has been changed as a result of what happened that weekend 2000 years ago in Jerusalem and is all geared towards a happy ending beyond anything even Hollywood could dream of. We have the script, we just need to take part in the film, because it is more real and wonderful than we ever imagined it could be.

A prayer about the Equal Marriage Bill in Scotland. And beyond.

Today, the Scottish Parliament debate and vote on the Equal Marriage Bill. This is a bill which has seen divisions widened in Scottish society and the Church as well.

For Biblical reasons (which I may expand upon at another time) I support the bill. However, there are many within the Church who, for equally valid, Biblical reasons, oppose it.

For this reason, I have a prayer. Not one that the Bill passes or fails, but for what I hope happens during the debate and beyond.

Loving, Heavenly Father

Today our politicians will decide whether or not to extend your gift of marriage to same-sex couples.

I pray that the debate is both impassioned and reasoned. That facts, evidence, thoughtful reflection and, above all, love are demonstrated by those taking part.

I pray that the mudslinging and name calling stop. That fears are not stoked. That people, not prejudice from either side, are accounted for.

I pray that your will is done. That it is done in the debating chamber, in the vote, in the reporting, in the reaction and in the whole of society in Scotland. Whatever the outcome.

I pray that we can move on from this to address the true, pressing needs in out society today. That we realise that the urgent priority is not in who can marry, but in poverty, injustice, loneliness, homelessness, hunger, inequality, religious division, racial hatred, sickness, alcohol and substance abuse, people struggling with parenthood, child neglect and abuse, disengagement, materialism, greed, exploitation, mental illness and many other things which make your people suffer.

Let us not become a people who argue over two people in love. Let us be a people who bring sight to the blind, hope to the poor, freedom to the captive and good news, your good news, to our country and to the world.

In Jesus’ name

Amen