Healthy living blog 3

Did you know it takes 72 muscles to frown and only 14 to smile?

On that reckoning smiling should be less of an effort!

To smile is still an effort all the same – one of the most worthwhile efforts we can make in life.

When Ronald Reagan was United States President he had a visit from Archbishop Tutu. Afterwards they came and asked him, ‘Mr. President, how was your meeting with Bishop Tutu’. ‘So, so’ he replied. Everyone smiled.

‘Tell us something that will help us to live our lives better’ they asked Mother Teresa. ‘Smile at each other’ she replied. ‘Smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other – it doesn’t matter who it is – and that will help you to grow up in greater love for one another’.

To smile is an effort. It is also a gift of the Holy Spirit that enriches the world. As the old music hall song ran: when you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you.

When we see a smile it touches us deep down in our spirit. It melts us and turns us away from useless worries. When we give a smile we give a blessing.  

Someone I knew was delighted to get a goat for Christmas. A relative bought in her name a goat which was given to an African family.

“To think I got a gift that’s going to go on giving” she said.

The movement for ethical gifts that invest in the poor countries in the world gives us a lot to think about.  Instead of sending money or consumables overseas people are arranging the local purchase of goats and cows that will provide an ongoing resource to needy families.

But it was my friend’s excitement at “a gift that keeps on giving” that stuck in my head.

When I first welcomed the Lord Jesus I opened my life to a gift that keeps on giving - forgiveness, healing, deliverance, guidance, answered prayer…the list could go on! Just as my friend saw a gift given that became an ongoing investment to relieve physical poverty so my Father in heaven has chosen to invest the gift of His Son in me to relieve my deepest needs!

The gift of God in Jesus is an investment in the human race without parallel.  It promises a great return!

The misuse of strength is probably the most destructive consequence of the sin of the world.  Sometimes we see sin as a weakness, especially the so-called sins of the flesh. This can blind us to sin that is nothing less than a wrong use of power.

My eyes were opened to this truth recently when I read something written by the Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya: ‘Christian mission to Europe and North America is a matter of urgent necessity because it is these countries that do most harm to humanity and nature as a whole; exercise more power for good or evil; call themselves Christian and hence are more damaging to the witness of the gospel; and are more dehumanized, more alienated from the values of the kingdom and more difficult to convert’.

My goodness, I thought, there’s some hard hitting thinking!  Tissa Balasuriya writes from Sri Lanka from where the misuse of power by Europe and North America stares you in the face.  The fact that this power is being misused by so-called Christian nations does little to advance the reign of Christ in Asia.

It was said that Napoleon’s real sin was his arrogant use of power more than his sexual infidelities.  Could this be said of our own culture?

We're all selfish and to have a spiritual life is to be at war with your selfishness.

Marriage helps.  Some have described it as a sort of martyrdom.  Many people, when they marry, suffer a loss of selfishness.  They have decided to devote a lot of themselves to someone else, the one they love.

Perhaps, though, the most unselfish of human callings follows on from this.  I am talking about being a parent.

I have three children and it is likely that I would do pretty well anything for them, within reason.

Here we have a wonderful window into the unselfish love of God.

If we earthly parents are ready to forget our self-interest and do next to anything for our children, how much more is our heavenly Father prepared to do for us?

We can read almost the same words in Luke's Gospel chapter 11: ‘Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?’

The veteran politician and writer Roy Hattersley is, by his own admission, not a believer.

Writing once in the Guardian newspaper he nevertheless gave believers a most powerful back-handed compliment. If my atheism is the truth that makes me free, he wondered, how is it that such truth fails to make me the sort of admirable person Christian faith can generate.

He writes: ‘it ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian…yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night….we atheists have to accept that most believers are better human beings’.

What honesty! It seems almost wrong to exploit it for the sake of Christian Faith!

As an atheist Roy Hattersley admits there is a goodness and humanity intrinsic to many believers that he actually covets. Would that he could achieve Christian motivation, he says, going on, sadly from our point of view, but without the mysteries and miracles!

Could it be that human beings actually enter a fullness of humanity only by the mystery and miracle of grace? Is Christian faith such an entry into our full potential as human beings?

We can’t prove our Christianity is true by argument. Roy Hattersley shows us another proof in the humane compassion faith can demonstrate.

It seems some two thirds of folk oppose state aided faith schools according to a survey a few years back with a rather loaded question: “Schools should be for everyone regardless of religion and the government should not be funding faith-schools of any kind”.

The survey is contradicted by the huge interest in the 7000 faith schools in England but it does say something about how people are seeing religion at this time.

Religious extremism that fuels terrorism is surely behind this no-vote. What people forgot, though, when they voted was the positive role of faith in our society.

The issue is sometimes reduced to whether community cohesion is hindered by religion. Believers, particularly Christians, have to be firm in saying that community cohesion is more hampered by selfishness. If you build a society around affirming self you won’t get the same cohesion you get from building a society around affirming God.

Of course the role faith communities should play in a secular society is not a simple subject. Christians must work with others, Muslims as much as any, to challenge those who abuse religion.  

If faith communities need to put their house in order society as a whole will never put its house in order without the energy of men and women of faith who look beyond and above themselves.

‘To a perfectly clear-sighted observer, who watched it for a long time from a great height, our planet, the Earth, would at first appear blue from oxygen in its atmosphere; then green from the vegetation that clothes it; then luminous – and ever more luminous – from the intensification of thought on its surface : but it would also appear dark – and ever more dark – from the suffering that grows in quantity and acuteness in time with the rise of consciousness as the centuries pass by’.

Words of the scientist priest Teilhard De Chardin who died half a century ago but whose insights continue to resonate.  Teilhard imagined the earth growing in luminosity, so to speak, as God created conscious beings who begin to connect up their thinking.  Many see the internet as the literal fulfilment of Teilhard's vision. The thoughts of human beings now flow electrically if not luminously across the globe.  

But there is darkness, yes, and there is suffering - linked even to the internet as it allows money to flow exploitatively and the sexual gratification that depersonalises.  

The globe – blue with oxygen, green with vegetation then luminous with thought is shaded with the darkness of sin.  Yet into that darkness has come, Teilhard professed, One who casts fire upon the earth to overcome dread and terror with divine compassion.

Imagine being completely paralysed, speechless and able to move just one eyelid.  That's what happened to a French magazine editor after a massive stroke that left him perfectly intact mentally but with an out of action brain stem.  A rare survivor Jean-Dominique Bauby lived to tell the tale of what it is to live with "locked-in syndrome". His short book called ‘The diving bell and the butterfly’ is a triumph of the human spirit if ever there was one.  Through blinking his left eyelid when read the alphabet Bauby was able to communicate from what he calls his "diving bell" existence an extraordinary and heartening tale.

In the diving bell of a paralysed body his mind roves like a butterfly enriching his existence and ours by reflection upon his plight.  It is a very moving book telling how humanity resides in the heart. Though oppressed physically and abandoned by some of his friends the author celebrates how prayer and friendship uplift his mean existence.  

We bear God's image.  Even if it is a jaded image there are people whose depth is astounding and beyond reason, like Jean-Dominique Bauby, people who show our potential, our dignity as human beings.  The triumph of spirit over material hardship is a telling sign. Human nature has something about it that goes beyond nature overall – a spark of divinity.

‘You must be so busy’ people say when they phone to ask a favour of a priest. We almost have to live up to busy-ness as our trademark.

This thinking came to a head when I saw someone with a tee shirt with these words: ‘Look busy Jesus is coming’.

Why do we choose to be busy? Busy-ness is a choice we actually make about filling our life up. We always have power of choice over some of our time, and often a great deal of it.

People expect their priests to be busy more than holy nowadays and they’re wrong to do so.

It’s a sobering thought! We never see Christ running to keep up in the Gospel. He moved around, of course, but with both determination and dignity, often breaking off to give his all to one needy person. For Jesus Christ there is none of the self-seeking ambition we find among workaholic clergy. ‘My food’ he said ‘is to do the will of him who sent me’ (John 4v34).

Holiness, Pascal said, is the church’s greatest influence. Holiness not busy-ness. Be still and know that I am God – unless you do so with regularity you will be what Paul calls ‘an empty gong or a clanging cymbal’.

A few years back our drains began to overflow.  We had to send for Dyno-Rod. In the end they had to send a small camera on a tube down the sewers. They gave us a 20 minute video of our drains. It’s quite a fascinating 20 minutes, especially the rat that appears half way through!

The cameras showed what human eye could never view.  The neighbour’s tree roots had blocked our drains. They needed cutting out and the drain needed a resin soaked felt lining.

Inside each one of us there are bonds that oppress us and restrict our health and life and God sees this far more surely than a Dyno-Rod camera.  

What’s more he’s able to show us just where we are held captive and then help us enter a new freedom.

Have you ever prayed: ‘God show me myself in your eyes’. It takes courage to do so. ‘God show me my exact point of need today so that I can ask You to fill it’?

When it comes to our growth as Christians it’s such an opening of ‘inner eyes’ that matters most.

How do Christians view doubt? How can they avoid both the broad mindedness that sits lightly to truth and the narrow-mindedness that so easily becomes a hostage to intolerance?

‘It is not bigotry to be certain we are right’ wrote G.K.Chesterton ‘but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong’. In other words any conviction worth its salt needs the self-awareness doubt exhibits to save it from narrow-mindedness.

In the dictionary doubt is defined as either the questioning of received wisdom or the withdrawal of trust in someone.

From the Christian viewpoint the questioning of received wisdom can be a healthy use of God-given reason whilst doubting God himself is a different matter altogether.

Doubt can be our friend as Christians if it helps people examine their false presuppositions and rebuild their lives upon Jesus Christ.

Just as the whole of science is built on systematically doubting existing theories and testing them by experimentation so as to gain a more truthful picture of reality so it can be for each person as an individual.

If I doubt something I might discover something – or Someone!

As Christians there are many who would join our fellowship if they would but doubt!

Doubting God takes people away from him. Doubting received wisdom can bring people closer to God.

Our personal faith comes through a disclosure of God’s reality in Jesus. This revelation, like the sun, can only be seen in its own light and no one else’s though what God discloses needs working out intellectually.

Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom was formerly a scientist and valued scientific doubting of models of reality and the way such doubting progresses knowledge. ‘Unless you are prepared to see reality and your own thoughts and the thoughts of others with keen interest, with courage, but with the certainty that the last word is not doubt, not perplexity and not bewilderment, but that it is discovery then you will be wasting your time’ he writes.

Many people waste time and energy through double-mindedness. As Christians we shouldn’t be double-minded in our loyalty towards God but we should be eager to look at every side of our human experience. As St Anselm taught once we believe we should expect to discover more understanding.

A thousand difficulties don’t make a doubt in the sense of disloyalty to our Lord. Our difficulties are among his challenging and deepening gifts. If we let them they can become pathways to discovering a fuller vision of the wonder of God and his creation.

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Each one of us has a terminal illness and life is either totally meaningless or totally meaningful, depending on the vantage point we have on that fact.

What we see about death depends upon our vantage point.

The atheist Bertrand Russell had this to say about life and death: ‘There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within.  There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment and then nothing’.

Contrast this sad vision of death with this one from the nineteenth century theologian Kohlbrugge who once imagined someone finding his skull a century later: ‘When I die - I do not die anymore, he wrote. If someone finds my skull, let this skull still preach to him and say: I have no eyes, nevertheless I see Him; though I have no lips, I kiss him; I have no tongue, yet I sing praise to Him with all who call upon His name.  I am a hard skull, yet I am wholly softened and melted in His love…All suffering is forgotten.’

A wonderful statement of resurrection faith!  Death as enemy and instrument of destruction turned head over heels by Jesus into a friend in the divine judo of Christianity!

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Native hunters in the jungles of Africa have a clever way of trapping monkeys.

They take a coconut, hollow it out and in one half of the shell cut a hole just big enough for a monkey’s hand to pass through. Then they place an orange in the other coconut half before fastening together the two halves of the coconut shell. Finally they secure the coconut to a tree with a rope, hide in the jungle and wait.

Sooner or later, an unsuspecting monkey slips his hand through the small hole, grasps the orange, and tries to pull it through the hole. The orange won’t come out ‘cause it’s too big for the hole. The persistent monkey pulls and pulls, never realising the danger he’s in.

While the monkey struggles with the orange, the hunters simply stroll in and capture the monkey by throwing a net over him.

Isn’t that sad? The poor monkey could save its life if it would only let go of the orange.

The world sets us all traps like the monkey trap. We keep hearing that if we’ve lots of money, power or status we’ll be happy.

Jesus didn’t grasp at power and riches. God’s hands are never clenched but are open to give to us if we’ll receive. Our hands were made to be open like his.

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I don’t know if like me you’ve been fascinated by revelations of life in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. These have come about recently through new sorts of cameras that can endure high pressure.

When you look at the ocean you’re hardly aware of what goes on in its depths. You’re more aware of the gentle rhythm of the tides or the occasional storms or Tsunamis. We see the surface but need help to see the depths.

You could see the soul as like an ocean. Each one of us has depths – or should have. God has given us the capacity to live deeply we call holiness.

To be holy is to be settled in your spirit by the Holy Spirit so that the storms of life are seen to be what they are – short lived and superficial, literally surface phenomena. A sign of holiness is to be obviously settled like the ocean depth without inner agitation when life’s storms come by. The agitation caused by hurtful words or deeds or one’s own foolishness stays on the surface. Like troubled water it settles quickly once the disturbance passes.

When God comes to us in Jesus he takes a place deep within us by his Spirit. If we live by that love deep as the ocean, we will become holy.

We’re living in a silence desert. It’s harder to get silence than it’s ever been in the UK.

You could blame electronic media if you wanted to, but that would miss the mark. If silence is hard to find it’s because you and I don’t want it. We’re uncomfortable with it.
A workman won’t paint without the radio on. A traveller won’t sit without their headphones. Even churches fill their awesome spaces with recorded chants.
People are threatened by silence. Why?

Could it be a fear of loneliness? Somehow sitting or walking or working or even worshipping in silence is seen as being cut off and isolated.
The Christian writer Bernanos by contrast defines silence as a presence at the heart of which is God. Silence for believers is fullness not emptiness, connecting not disconnecting.
It is a creative listening, a waiting upon the Holy Spirit who fills and would fill all things.

When you know God you see silence as precious. It is his very presence. As one of the Psalms says, ‘Be still and know that I am God’. (Psalm 46v10)

Now so many books are online it’s been possible to survey the use of words and phrases over a couple of hundred years.
The word ‘internet’ appears only in the last twenty five years. The words ‘I must’ occur an awful lot until the 1960s. The words ‘I want’ rarely occur before the 1950s.
I had a 50s and 60s childhood in which my parents frequently countered my designs with ‘I want never gets’. Well, not always, it seems to me, looking back. I did get a lot of what I wanted, but those were the days when you saved up laboriously for the bike you wanted.

Even if I didn’t and still don’t always get what I want I’m grateful for an upbringing that taught me what I ought to do matters more than what I want to do.

It’s a tough business going against self gratification but it brings its reward.

Jesus Christ’s an expert in this and is always ready to help us lose ourselves in the great cause he established on the earth, the building up of God’s kingdom. I invite you to join, in his selfless aspirations at the start of the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come and thy will be done – in my life and in the world!

A few years back we marked the centenary of the birth of one of the 20th century’s great explorers, Wilfred Thesiger. He twice crossed the so-called Empty Quarter of Arabia and his writings record a desert culture that has been largely lost.

Wilfred Thesiger explored by going native. He took no radio to keep up with what was going on at home. He lived rigorously as the natives. Through this he became the first European to see amazing sights, many captured in his brilliant photography.

He writes of the fearful splendour of the desert being offset by human companionship: ‘In the pitiless light of day we were as insignificant as the beetles I watched labouring across the sands. Only in the kindly darkness could we borrow a few square feet of desert and find homeliness within the radius of the firelight’. In that description of the nightly desert campfire Thesiger touches on how human companionship overcomes nature’s fearful splendour.

Just as Thesiger’s work gained from hiding himself away for years among the natives so it is with God’s work of hiding himself among us in the incarnation. God is in the homeliness that counters the impersonal forces at loose in the world. We human beings, made in God’s image, have the capacity to build a homeliness amidst the impersonal forces of nature.

It takes a great mind to reset the debate between science and religion and former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks did this in a thoughtful book called ‘The Great Partnership’ which argues that science and religion aren’t meant to be enemies but partners. He makes his case from the widely recognised division of the brain into left and right, analytic and synthetic. That division sheds light on the separate processes of science and religion.
Science is analytic. It takes things apart to see how they work. Religion is synthetic. It puts things together to see what they mean.

Rabbi Sacks argues that, just as a healthy brain requires the balance of analysis and synthesis, so a right-minded world requires the coming together of science and religion.
Einstein said, ‘Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind’. Sacks tackles irrationally based religion and the arrogance of some scientists. He appeals for a new alliance for the good of humanity. Science and religion need one another - the world’s future depends on their partnership. Without faith in God science is incapable of preserving human dignity, building community, securing morality or helping people to grasp the essential meaning of life.

When astronauts trod on the moon they found themselves able to leap and jump with ease because gravity on the moon is a sixth that on earth. If they had been able to visit Jupiter they would have crawled on the surface so strong is the downward gravity.

You and I get pulled down all the time. Our bodies, thankfully, get pulled down to stay on earth. But our spirits – they get pulled down too. They can feel really heavy. When we try to rise above our sins by our own efforts we’re like the man in the gym trying to lift weights beyond his strength. The more we try to lift ourselves the heavier life feels.

The gravitational field of God’s love that lifts our lives can’t be felt through our own efforts.  It reaches down to offer us a hand up in Jesus and all he has done for us by his life, death and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As we struggle with our relationships, insecurities and spiritual emptiness we find ourselves caught by the gravitational lure of sin as if in a quicksand. The more we struggle in our own strength to release ourselves the deeper we go down. We need an upward pull from outside of ourselves. Jesus does that for us.


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