Love One Another

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St. Ann’s Square, Manchester  (Photo credit: Warren Smith)

I stood in St. Ann’s Square, Manchester, just a few days after the tragic events of May 22nd, gazing across the sea of flowers, vibrant in the morning sunshine. The crowd quietly looked on as balloons bobbed and candles flickered. Moving messages of sorrow and solidarity had been chalked on the paving stones, and satellite vans were dotted along the street, waiting to send the latest ‘moving’ pictures around the world.

What can one say after the tragic bombing at the Manchester Arena already over a week ago? Ariana Grande was right when she tweeted, “I don’t have words.” Nothing can bring back the loss suffered by those who have been injured and bereaved. Our hearts go out to each one; for them life will never be the same again.

1705.i-love-mcr-1024x768.CroppedWhen I was six my father would occasionally take me to work with him on a Saturday morning. Before going home we would stop at the sweetshop next door to his offices. That sweetshop was about 35 yards from where the sea of flowers lies today. Neither I, nor my father, could have comprehended the tragic event that would carpet the square with flowers so many years later.

Despite her initial tweet, later that week Ariana Grande found the words to express her sorrow and her thoughts for the future:

“My heart, prayers and deepest condolences are with the victims of the Manchester Attack and their loved ones.

There is nothing I or anyone can do to take away the pain you are feeling or to make this better. However, I extend my hand and heart and everything I can possibly give to you and yours, should you want or need my help in any way.

The only thing we can do now is choose how we let this affect us and how we live our lives from here on out. …

Our response to this violence must be to come closer together, to help each other, to love more, to sing louder and to live more kindly and generously than we did before. …

We will continue in honor of the ones we lost, their loved ones, my fans and all affected by this tragedy.

They will be on my mind and in my heart everyday and I will think of them with everything I do for the rest of my life.” @ArianaGrande May 26

As Ariana tweeted, “the only thing we can do now is choose how we let this affect us and how we live our lives from here on out.” In response to the bombing, the people of Manchester have taken the Oasis song, “Don’t Look Back in Anger” as their theme song. Yes, we should be deeply moved by such a tragic event, but the people are right, anger will accomplish nothing. As wise King Solomon once wrote:

“A gentle answer turns anger away. …”

Proverbs 15:1 (NIRV)

 

It’s at times like this we can look to our Creator for inspiration; when we take on the gentle but strong spirit of Jesus, who said to His followers:

“I give you a new command: Love each other. You must love each other as I have loved you. All people will know that you are my followers if you love each other.”

John 13:34-35 (NCV)

I wonder how different Monday 22nd would have been if one more person in this world had understood the truth of those words?

Gone Today, Here Tomorrow

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The new beach at Dooagh.   (Photo: Sean Molloy)

The village of Dooagh on Achill Island has a new beach. The story of the reappearing Irish beach recently hit the headlines, when the waves deposited hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sand over a ten day period on what was a very rocky shoreline, recreating the village’s beautiful, 300m long, sandy beach. The beach had been missing since 1984, when a powerful storm washed it away. Tourist numbers declined as a result and three of the area’s four hotels closed, but this month the village has experienced gridlock from cars and campervans and people coming from all over Ireland and the UK to see the new beach.

This is not the first time that the beach has come and gone, or should that be gone and come? It was washed away before in the 1890s, but had returned by the 1920’s when currachs were launched from the sands. How long it will stay this time is unknown. The locals can only watch and hope.

Some feel that same uncertainty when it comes to prayer. They pray, but hold out little hope for an answer. Others pray, and feel cheated when the answer fails to appear. “How long, O Lord?” is a frequent lament from the ancients, recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. So what’s the point of prayer, and indeed what’s the point of this website, if that’s the case?

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The shore at Dooagh before the beach returned.  (Photo: Achill Tourism)

First of all, prayer brings us close to our Creator. It makes us aware that some of our needs can only be met from outside of ourselves. I once knew a nurse, who worked in a cancer hospital. She used to challenge me saying, “How can there be a God when I see such suffering around me every day?” Then she herself needed hospital treatment at a different hospital. What a difference when she came home! She told me that now she knew there was a God, because He had been with her to comfort and support her during her stay. Secondly as we pray, we do begin to see some answers to our prayers. Someone once said that the more they pray, the more coincidences happen. Try it for yourself and see.

However, answers to prayer don’t always come; at least not in the form we are expecting. How, or if, our prayers are answered can be summed up in three words: Yes, No and Wait. We have a loving Creator, who, despite the difficulties of this world, always wants the best for us. Sometimes His reply to our prayer is “Yes”, and we see our prayer answered relatively quickly. At other times He knows that what we requested won’t do us any good. So He helps us by not giving us what we asked for. On other occasions the answer is “Wait”; probably the same answer you would give to your 8 year old son or daughter, who wanted to learn to ride a motorbike or rent an apartment of their own.

Even so, we are encouraged to pray according to God’s will and not give up, believing that our prayer has been heard.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.

Philippians 4:6 (NLT)

Fogo Island

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Earlier this week I watched a television documentary about an exclusive, Canadian hotel situated on the very edge of Newfoundland on Canada’s Atlantic coast. The Fogo Island Inn is an unusual but attractive, white, ultra-modern building built on the rocky foreshore of Fogo Island. Twenty-nine suites are available for guests, who enjoy stunning, uninterrupted views of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The whole atmosphere of the hotel is light and airy, yet relaxing and homely. Spotlessly clean, white is the predominant colour, inside as well as out, setting-off the colourful individually designed furnishings, making it a home from home for guests. Facilities include an art gallery, library and sauna, but for me at least, the main attraction would be the peace and tranquility of an unspoilt haven, seemingly on the edge of the world. One night’s stay for two begins at approximately $1,500 CAD.

As a creative type, I was personally fascinated, as I’ve written above, by the stunning whiteness of the building, enhanced as it was by the beautifully made furniture, the colourful hand-made quilts and cushions, the natural wood floors and the unique wallpapers. Then I was suddenly brought back to reality as I watched the maintenance manager washing the windows with a brush on the end of an incredibly tall pole. Because the hotel is built literally on the rocks, just yards from the water’s edge, the salt in the air needs to be regularly washed from the windows. – No matter how beautiful the building, the windows still need to be cleaned.

On a human level, skin cleansing products are big business, removing the impurities, so that our skin can breathe again; and though we may not realise it, our need for spiritual cleansing is just as great. The more we experience of life in this world, the more of this world clings to us. The noise, the brashness, the selfishness of the world around us leaves its mark. No wonder some people choose to holiday by relaxing on palm-fringed beaches or trek through mountains far from civilisation.

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Such holidays are short-lived. We need a more accessible source of spiritual refreshment, and that is where prayer comes in. When we come to our Creator in prayer, we arrive at the source of spiritual purity. Out of His love for us, our Creator calls us to Himself. He offers us forgiveness and cleansing as a free gift – forgiveness, because who hasn’t done something they regret, and which of us has lived a perfect life and has nothing on their conscience? – a free gift, because Jesus Himself paid the price for our cleansing, so our spiritual focus can be restored and we can enjoy purity and peace as, with His help, we make a new start and dedicate our life to following Him.

“So then, let us purify ourselves from everything that makes body or soul unclean, and let us be completely holy by living in awe of God.”

2 Corinthians 7:1 (GNT)

The Ugly Duckling

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Record Store Day is an annual event, which began in the United States and now takes place on every continent except Antarctica. This year’s Record Store Day takes place later this month on Saturday 22nd April. It celebrates the unique atmosphere of local record stores, which are once again growing in popularity thanks to the resurgence of interest in music on vinyl. If you are, or were, a frequenter of record stores, the appeal isn’t difficult to understand. Take this comment from John Stark of Flagstaff, Arizona: “Record shops totally fascinate me. I can dawdle and browse for hours, discover long sought after rarities and gems, feel at home, spend more than anticipated. It’s in my genes.”, or this one from Howard Hart, the guitarist from San Diego: “When I walk into an old, indie-owned record shop, I’m transported back to a truly happy place.”

I myself have happy memories from my teenage years of hours spent browsing in Kath Jones’ record shop here in the UK. It was basically a large, wooden hut filled with rows of tables, groaning under the weight of cardboard boxes stuffed with singles and LP’s of every musical genre. But today as I write, my thoughts go back to my childhood, to one of my first ever discs; it was the soundtrack of the family film “Hans Christian Andersen” starring Danny Kaye. For me, one of its most memorable tracks was “The Ugly Duckling“; just one of the many tales written by the real Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author and storyteller of the Nineteenth Century.

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The Ugly Duckling” is a story with a message. It tells of a duckling, the largest, ugliest and last to hatch of all its siblings. Ridiculed and bullied by the rest of the farmyard because it was different, it flew away. “They are afraid of me because I am ugly,” he said. So he closed his eyes, and flew still farther,” During the next few months, the duckling encountered much hostility and misunderstanding. A pompous hen advised him to conform and be like “half the world” if he wanted to be accepted. Then one spring day, paddling down a stream, he met a group of three magnificent swans. Compared with his ugliness, their beauty made him more unhappy than ever. He had endured so much that he didn’t care what the swans reaction to him would be. So he sailed up to them, prepared for the worst. Hanging his head, he suddenly noticed his reflection in the water and was amazed at what he saw, “no longer a dark, grey bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan.” The other swans swum around him in welcome. “He had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds.”

I hope you will understand if I say that many of us are ugly ducklings. We are criticised and pushed about by others, expected to conform if we are to get anywhere in life, and we fail to recognise that we are of infinite worth, and have a unique set of talents. We are the pinnacle of our Creator’s work, called to a relationship with Him, and here to reflect His love to a broken world. Each one of us is unique. Yes, we fail and mess-up from time to time, but we all have an in-built capacity to love and to care, to protect and provide. We are truly beautiful.

Some people base their self-worth on their looks, their talents, their social status or their financial position, but these things are fleeting. Neither should we value ourselves by the negative opinions of others, but instead we can recognise that we are loved by the One who made us. As the ancient scriptures say:

“The Lord your God … is always with you. He celebrates and sings because of you, and he will refresh your life with His love.”

Zephaniah 3:17 (CEV)

“You’re a very fine swan indeed!”

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Puppet on a String

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Sandie Shaw       (Photo credit: BBC)

“Puppet on a String”, sung by Sandie Shaw, was the winning song of the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna. It was released 50 years ago this month, and won the event for the United Kingdom. In fact it had the second widest margin of victory in the history of the contest, gaining 47 votes to Ireland’s 22. In May this year, Lucie Jones will be representing the UK in Kiev, singing “Never Give Up on You.”

I once saw a picture of a puppet on a string. It had a pair of scissors in its hand, and had cut off all but one of its strings. Its head was up, but its body lay in a lifeless heap on the floor. In its longing for freedom and independence, the puppet had cut the very threads which gave it life and purpose.

In our longing for independence, we too can be like that puppet. Our Twenty-First Century lives are often stressful and burdensome, and we long for a way of escape, but instead we cut our links to our Creator and turn our backs on the One who gives us life. So often we forget we are spiritual beings, and we need that contact with God, who is waiting to lift us, encourage us and empower us ready to face the world again.

It was only a few days ago that I heard someone describe us as glove puppets. Like a string puppet, a glove puppet has great potential, but only when filled by its creator’s hand. God is not only someone we can confide in, who listens when no one else will, but He also loves us deeply and longs to fill us with His Spirit. We are at our best when we are in relationship with Him. He doesn’t promise an easy life – life in this world can be tough – but He promises to be there for us, to strengthen and encourage us and help us through.

It takes courage to try something new, but why not take this opportunity to turn your life around and discover a new way of living by asking Jesus to fill you with His life and allow Him to pull your strings? Risky, challenging maybe? But worth it!

OK Jesus, I’m new to all this. I don’t even know if you exist, but if you’re real, please reveal yourself to me, turn my life around and fill me, be that life within and help me to follow you.

 

A Tale of Two Citizens

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Do people judge you by your appearance or do you ever do the same to others? I have to admit I find myself doing so when I have nothing else to go on, but there is a better way. Talk to the person, get to know them; it’s likely you’ll find depths of character that no amount of looking could ever discover. Maybe you’ll make a new friend?

Appearances can be deceptive. Let me tell you about two people, real people who we may judge differently at first glance. My first story is about a vicar.

In the 1980’s a prison chaplain was encouraged when he found out that one of the prisoners in his jail had become a follower of Jesus. This young man’s life was transformed. He became a new person, eventually finishing his sentence and starting a new life in another part of the country. A few weeks later, the prison chaplain received a phone call about the young man. It was from a vicar, who explained that the ex-prisoner had started to attend his church, “but,” the vicar said, “he’s a bit odd!”

“What do you mean odd?” asked the chaplain.

“He talks as though he knows God personally!” was the reply.

“Well that’s probably because he does,” said the chaplain. Immediately the vicar’s phone went down! His unbelief had found him out. Here was a man representing God to his community and vice versa, yet who didn’t have that relationship of love and trust with the God he was trying to serve.

My second story is about a lady, whom I met recently in the high street. As I talked to this middle-aged lady, dressed as she was in an old, baggy track suit, she confided that she was an ex-prostitute; which probably explained the stares I got as I walked along beside her. Her life had become one of hardship and fear, yet there was something that gave her hope. She told me that she’d been reading the Bible, and had discovered that Jesus showed compassion and forgiveness to a prostitute he met while a dinner guest at someone’s home. This lady wanted to know that same Jesus for herself.

You don’t have to be religious to know your Creator; you don’t have to have lived a perfect life; you don’t have to have it all together. There is hope for every one of us. Our Creator doesn’t guarantee an easy life, but He offers love, peace, forgiveness and new life to everyone who will turn and follow Him.

As Jesus said:

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30 (CEB)

A Bruised Reed

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“Unwanted, abandoned because I don’t measure up!” That is how many people feel in our world of upside-down values. Yet, no matter how insecure we feel, each one of us is unique and of infinite worth to our Creator, who didn’t make a mistake when he brought us into being. We may not have Hollywood money or good looks or the brains of Einstein or even the popularity of some of our former classmates at school, but to the one who truly knows us through and through, we are loved with a passion. As the ancient, Hebrew prophet once said about God:

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.”

Isaiah 42:3 (NIVUK)

The BBC’s Panorama programme recently conducted a fascinating investigation into the true identity of a gentle, elderly, American man found abandoned in November 2015 on the streets of Hereford, a small but historic English city. His dementia meant he was unable to explain his situation, and only once did he reveal his name, Roger Curry. He was taken temporarily to a local care home, where he was loved and adopted as one of their own. Unfortunately efforts by the local police to find his family proved fruitless.

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Roger Curry at the care home in Hereford. (Credit: BBC Panorama)

So using social media and a lot of detective work, Panorama finally found his real home, a fenced off, fire-damaged, single-storey house in Los Angeles, the city where he had once worked as a nurse. Roger’s wife and son are accused by the Los Angeles authorities of taking him to England and abandoning him. Roger has now been flown back to Los Angeles where he is being looked after by the local authority. Sadly, according to the Panorama report, the care he’s been receiving recently in L.A., doesn’t match the level of care or devotion that he experienced at the care home in Hereford. The US courts are now deciding on Roger’s future.

To be rejected by your family, for whatever reason, is very sad, but thankfully God will never reject us. His eye is always upon us; his ear is always listening for our cry. So call on the one who loves you, tell Him your troubles, confide in him; never feel afraid that you don’t match up to His expectations, receive his love for you today. Our anxious hearts can be reassured by His promise:

“I will never leave you; I will never abandon you.”

Hebrews 13:5 (GNT)

Set Free To Choose

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Many of us today are “spiritual but not religious”. We are discerning about which path we choose to follow; we are determined not to be trapped by tradition. But what if you are religious? What if you’ve been brought up in a particular belief system that you didn’t choose?

Today I was speaking to a man, who, even though not a regular churchgoer, believed himself to be tied for life to the church denomination into which he was born and christened. Do you feel similarly trapped or are you a free spirit?

Last week I heard a radio presenter describe what happened to him once on a trip to the supermarket. Having filled his trolley (US cart), he pushed it to the checkout, and the assistant began to scan his items ready for him to pack. However, as he was emptying his shopping onto the conveyor belt, he began to find items in his trolley that he hadn’t chosen and didn’t want. He suddenly realised what must have happened. He had left his trolley at one point to go off in search of something. Having found it, he came back and dropped the item into what he thought was his trolley, but wasn’t! With half his shopping already scanned, what was he going to do? He decided to carry on as if nothing had happened, and as a result he paid for, and took home, a lot of items he didn’t really want.

Unlike that radio presenter and his unwanted goods, we don’t have to remain burdened by someone else’s faith or by an accident of birth. Our parents do make a choice for us, according to their own beliefs when we’re young – it may be a good choice or it may not, but as an adult we are free to decide what our own beliefs should be.

The scriptures tell us that through a relationship with our Creator, we can draw close to God with freedom and confidence. God is not a man whose judgement we can sway by our religious label or seeming good behaviour. He is already aware of our true condition, and yet he loves us intimately. He calls us to turn from our selfish ways, to follow Him and to love Him in return.

The question is not which religious label we have, but are we following the One who gave everything He had that we might know Him?

“In Jesus, and through faith in Jesus, we may approach God with freedom and confidence.”

Ephesians 3:12

He Heals the Broken-Hearted

When our heart is broken, hurting, when life seems so unfair, we can turn to the One who said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you,” because He is the One who heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds, and He listens to all our prayers.

Tell Him how you feel, be still in His presence, then tell your heart to beat again …

He heals the broken hearted … and lifts up all who are bowed down.

Psalm 147:3; Psalm 145:14 (NIVUK)