There is an annual 10k road race held on the outskirts of the West Midlands. Up to 900 runners inhale and exhale huge amounts of country air in an attempt to beat their PB. At least that's the line runners tell each other: "I am only running against myself". But that is only partly true of course. When the race begins and you see someone you know a mere 20 metres in front of you our demeanour changes to one of predator catching prey.
When I run the race I know there will be four or five other runners from a nearby church. We greet each other most cordially before the race, we have known each other for years. But I want to beat all five of them; the fact that I attend another church makes the race so much more enticing. I usually manage to beat three or four of them, and humorously accuse those who beat me of taking performance enhancing drugs.
The spirit of true sportsmanship demands that I'm glad we had the race and that it actually is the 'taking part' that counts. A friend of mine named Mick had one of his legs amputated, he told me that one of the things he regretted was getting so angry with himself that he never managed to run a marathon under three hours. "That was stupid," he said, and straight away I could see Mick's point. The sheer joy of running is a marvellous opportunity to celebrate life.
We recently saw the news that Usain Bolt had been beaten in his last 100m final by Justin Gatlin, who has served two bans (2001 and 2006) from the sport for taking drugs. In a spirit of forgiveness an arbitration panel gave Gatlin the opportunity to compete again. Gatlin quickly became a rogue of modern athletics and has been greeted by boos and jeers in some of his races. Usain Bolt's final 100m solo sprint should have been a fairy tale ending but the pantomime villain secured his own place in athletics' history and Bolt finished in third place with Gatlin's fellow American Christian Coleman coming second.
Time and age may have taken their toll on Usain Bolt, we have seen him run better and faster, and after all, he has now reached the grand old age of 30. However, Justin Gatlin is 35 and managed to stay focused and trained hard to win his gold medal. Gatlin did not let the jeers of the London crowd move him at all, saying "I tuned it out through the rounds and stayed the course. I did what I had to do."
There are times when we all face opposition of different sorts, and most people, when all is said and done, find a place in their hearts to admire a person who can stay focused and not let the "nay saying" crowd alter their course.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
(Rudyard Kipling "If")
Down on the track after the race there was no ill-feeling from the two men at the centre of attention. Justin remarked on Usain's honesty and sportsmanship, "The first thing he did was congratulate me and say that I didn't deserve the boos. He's an inspiration."
Last Sunday morning at my church I met with a few friends and we spoke about that race. One lady mentioned that Gatlin's win reminded her that the Pharisees and religious teachers were not at all happy with Jesus and 'They growled, "He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends."' (Luke 15:3) So Jesus addressed their complaint by telling three stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son, all of whom were found.
Some people, including Lord Coe, thought that Justin Gatlin should not have been allowed back onto the athletics' stage, and they may have a point, but from another perspective the World Championships 100m final 2017 gives us all hope.
The object of this little story is to affirm that God walks with us in our trials but we may not always detect him because he appears in different guises.
Just over two years ago I was at a low point, perhaps the lowest I have ever been. My mother had recently died and my dad had a quadruple bypass plus I was going through serious relationship problems. Around that time I seemed to keep hearing the same story - two people walking along the road to Emmaus had someone walking along with them whom they failed to recognise, the unidentified person being the risen Christ. I heard this story so many times over a short period of time that I thought I ought to take note of it just in case I had the Lord walking along with me and I too failed to identify him.
This is where Ivan comes into the story. Ivan has a snorting problem. Several establishments have banned him from entering their premises, including two betting shops, the local library and a sports club. 18 months ago Ivan got scolded by a bus driver and was close to being ejected from the bus.
Now when I say that Ivan snorts I'm not talking about cocaine, no, I'm referring to snorting like a horse might snort. The sound is loud, uncomfortable and awkward for those in earshot. He has explained to me that he has an acid reflux medical condition and can't help making the sound. The consequence of his "medical condition," coupled with the fact that he would never win the 2018 Best Dressed Man award, (to put it politely), means he often finds himself alone.
There is one betting shop in town that still allows Ivan through its doors and, although I am not a betting man, I sometimes sit with him in the bookmaker's watching the horses on the TV monitors and talking about this and that. Ivan is not truly a betting man either but the bookie's in question give him a cup of tea and in return he has a small flutter on the gee gees. The companionship and cup of tea are the true reason that Ivan frequents their premises. I think he is lonely and needs a few friends. Ivan shared with me that he used to be married but that was a long time ago, his ex-wife has remarried and his only son never contacts him and has changed his birth name so Ivan doesn't even know what his son's name is or where he lives.
I first met Ivan when I was sitting in a local church. The services tend to be quiet affairs and because of the high water I was wading through I was a needing some peace, quiet and respite myself - I seemed to be assailed by stormy weather. I enjoyed sitting in a pew alone and contemplating any interesting points made during the service to see how they could help me with my current vexation. But that particular Sunday, just as the service was about to begin Ivan came and sat right next to me and immediately snorted, then got out a dirty looking handkerchief and, sort of, spit in it. I thought Why has he come and sat right next to me? Other people in the church began doing a shuffling half-turn while still in their seats, of the kind that people who want to make a point that they are not happy with something but without them looking directly at the offending person. Then, during the prayer time, while we had our eyes closed, Ivan sneezed so loudly that everyone in the church jumped. Not only did he sneeze but his knees went up in the air and his feet hit the floor so hard at the exact same time of the sneeze that we thought we were being bombed. The minister did his best continue saying important stuff but it was all accompanied by the sound of loud snorting. I was glad when the service finished, I wanted to go home and have some supper but Ivan had put me off the idea of eating anything. So I went for a walk to try and regain some composure. I'd walked about a mile when I saw Ivan walking towards me. What! I thought, come on, give me a break. As our steps got closer to each other Ivan looked like he was going to walk straight past me, and I was about to let him too, without saying a word, when I suddenly remembered the two men walking on the road to Emmaus. So I stopped Ivan and said, "Hey, you sat next to me in church tonight." Ivan replied by saying "Did I?" "Yes you did." I replied, to which Ivan said, "Oh yeah I think I did. Okay, I'll see you next week then." "What's your name?" I asked as he walked on by, "Ivan" he replied.
I walked on thinking Oh no, this guy is going to be sitting by me every week now disturbing my peace. And he did. In fact we got to know each other fairly well and we met up at other times. We went to see a premier football match together, we would meet up in the town, Ivan came to see me sing at a local venue and I've visited him in his little flat. Ivan and I walked together. People from church would kindly offer to give Ivan a car ride home but Ivan would always reply, "No thanks I'm going to walk with Paul." Ivan's words were a great comfort to me. I felt as if Ivan was a proxy for Jesus, he walked with me. I shared about my problems with Ivan and he would help me see the lighter side of life.
Ivan told me he'd got a major birthday looming and he'd like to take a lady out for dinner to celebrate. "Which lady?" I asked, "Well, there's a widow at that church you go to who I'd like to ask out." So I informed Ivan of what I thought was the best way to go about such a proceeding, that basically meant wait until Elizabeth, (named changed) was on her own, pluck up your courage, and ask her out. "Okay" said the courageous man, "I will."
So the next few Sundays Ivan and I waited for the correct opportunity, but Elizabeth always seemed to be with someone. "Huh," mumbled Ivan, "she's always with someone." The birthday was almost upon him when suddenly, two Sundays before the big day, I spotted her alone at the end of the service. But Ivan was occupied talking to a man, "Ivan," I said with raised voice, "Elizabeth is free, quick, now's your chance." "Okay" he replied, but the man talking to Ivan seemed insistent on finishing his conversation. In the mean time Elizabeth was walking towards the back of the church. "Ivan, come on," "Yeah, I'm coming" he said. But by this time she was almost out of the door, so I ran after her and shouted "Elizabeth!" she turned and looked at me. I looked back to see where Ivan was and he was still collared by the man who didn't know the urgency of the situation. So I addressed her and said, "Ivan wanted to ask you something."
"Oh yes, what's that?"
"He wanted to know if you would go to dinner with him to celebrate his birthday."
I felt like a school boy asking a female classmate "Hey Lizzie Ivan wants to know if you'll go out with him." Ivan eventually turned up and I broke the news to him that Elizabeth would be happy to go out with him to dinner. He smiled.
I understand that the dinner went well and Elizabeth bought Ivan a nice item of clothing as a birthday gift. As Ivan and I spent a little time together I would sometimes silently pray, "Lord, is there anything you can do about Ivan's snorting problem?" And slowly, I've noticed, that over the last two years his acid reflux problem, or whatever it is, has receded quite remarkably; I don't seem to notice it at all these days.
I sometimes wonder how God would behave if he came to church and sat down next to us. Would he turn up dishevelled and sneeze and snort and sometimes talk a little too loud at various points in the service? I came to the conclusion that, yes, maybe that's exactly what he would do. Not because he is mischievous but because he simply wants to see how we react to him turning up in church that way.
Relief for a problem may come from an unexpected source. I was in need and an unlikely friend came my way. If I've been any help to Ivan, Ivan has been more help to me. There's a proverb that says "Those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed" (Pro 11:25). That's the way positive progress in the world seems to be made, there appears to be a reap what you sow mechanism at the heart of life. I suppose we all want our prayers to be listened to and perhaps if we listen to others God will listen to us.
The Beatles asked "All the lonely people, where do they all come from?" I don't know where they all come from but there would be less of them around if we take time to engage with people who come our way.
I'm still stuck on the couch at the moment...
But I will get moving soon and write something else interesting and hopefully useful to both man and beast.
Okay, I have been thinking and although this may not be much use to beasts it may be of some value to human beings.
Last night I turned up at “Breath” without a guitar - I’d forgotten that I’d been asked to lead a few worship songs. But as I arrived Ada, who had a guitar there, asked me to tune it, so I actually walked in the room with a guitar in my hand. I led a few songs with Ada's guitar and I think I got away with it, although Cath (one of the leaders) did look at me very suspiciously. Tonight I’ve been asked to sing at a local “Live Lounge,” I’ll make sure the guitar’s in the car.
Martin and Cath thought I had a laid-back and calm approach, I suggested it may be the duck-on-water-syndrome: looking calm on the surface but paddling furiously under the water-line. Martin disagreed and thought it was calmness given by God.
We all get rocked and rolled on life’s sea, and the sea occasionally gets stormy to the point where we shout out, as the disciples did, “Don't you care if we drown?"
Is God asleep and oblivious to our plight? Jesus was asleep when his disciples cried out, but he soon woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace, be still.” He then rebuked his disciples: "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?"
I guess that’s the long and short of it, if we only have faith in God when life’s sea is calm and without waves, then what value does that faith hold? But if we make God our refuge, he is a shelter in the season of storms and the time of tranquillity.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore. (Psalm 121:3-8)
Back in the noughties I wrote a song called 'Too Many Things To Worry About'. We are now heading towards the end of the following decade (for which no nickname was successfully found), so I thought about updating the song and calling it 'Far Too Many Things To Worry About'.
A friend of mine, who I consider level headed enough to hold a responsible position in the UK judicial system, recently messaged me telling me of her worries about North Korea and America. Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, said the US is "within the range of our nuclear strike and a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office" - US president Donald Trump responded with a tweet, "Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!".
I understood my friend's worries - The Battle of the Buttons does seem to bring the danger of a nuclear holocaust closer to each one of us who happen to be living on planet earth in 2018. And more worryingly the "My dad's bigger than your dad" approach certainly informs us that we are in a new age in the way some world leaders communicate.
But there are other things to concern us too: The World Health Organization state that "Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today." That's quite scary and making the matter a little bit scarier they add, "A growing number of infections - such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhoea, and salmonellosis - are becoming harder to treat as the antibiotics used to treat them become less effective." We can help ourselves by only using antibiotics when prescribed by a doctor and by not demanding antibiotics if the doctor says we don't need them.
Nastiness is another current worrying problem. I've noticed that some of my fellow musicians don't like reading the comment section of a piece of their work. I understand that actors are the same; I heard one actor say, "Of course, you can't read the comments" as if it was common knowledge that anyone involved in the creative arts should not and would not read the "comments". I did a Google search starting with "Why are YouTube comments.", the sentence was autocompleted for me with phrases such as "so bad", "so racist", and "so toxic". There are a lot of voices out there vying for attention, some we need and ought to listen to, but many of the other alarmist, malicious and spiteful voices can be totally disregarded.
I noticed that in her Christmas address Queen Elizabeth brought us some other worrying facts of modern life: "This Christmas, I think of London and Manchester, whose powerful identities shone through over the past 12 months in the face of appalling attacks. In Manchester, those targeted included children who had gone to see their favourite singer." The Queen also offered some helpful and hopeful advice to anyone willing to listen, "We remember the birth of Jesus Christ whose only sanctuary was a stable in Bethlehem. He knew rejection, hardship and persecution; and yet it is Jesus Christ's generous love and example which has inspired me through good times and bad."
We have efficient communication networks that circumnavigate the globe enabling us to hear worrying news pretty fast. Interestingly, according to Jesus there is another network available, He said, "John's baptism-was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!" (Mark 11:30) Two networks available! Heaven's or Earth's. The Queen found help listening into one of them, I also have to admit that I am fortified and strengthened when I consider the voice that is worth listening to
I did some gigs in Cornwall England last week. In one venue (a local pub) there was a dog in the audience. The dog's owner told me that his pet liked the blues and occasionally joined in with the music with some doggie howling.
I like Cornwall because of its relaxed feel and its enthusiasm for nature. Cornwall was one of the first counties to install wind farms to create electricity at a time when vociferous people treated the innovation with contempt, pointing out that the miniscule amount of electricity the windfarm contributed to the National Grid was so insignificant that there was little point in having the blot on the landscape. However, the UK's first commercial windfarm has now produced enough energy to boil 3.4bn kettles since its development in 1991 and is now one of more than 1,000 onshore projects across the country.
One of my Cornish friends took me to the Eden Project where I had a chance to explore the largest indoor rainforest in the world. Here I learned the staggering fact, that because ancient air bubbles trapped in ice allow us to see back in time to what Earth's atmosphere was like in the distant past, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are now higher (a lot higher) than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years.
Modern people, including me, want electricity on demand for many and varied reasons, so it's good to see that 'people power' is generating 'prolonged power' by stirring governments and companies to invest in ways of reducing this generation's, size 13, carbon footprint, something future inhabitants of planet earth will thank us for.
Many countries these days have a clean energy policy, but overall the world still relies on fossil fuels of which UN climate scientists say that continued use of oil, gas and coal will have a "severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."
One encouraging innovative idea that electric carmakers are exploring is a venture entitled 'Vehicle-to-Grid'. In Denmark, Nissan is working with a utility company and have installed special 'bi-directional' charging points. Which means that while the drivers are not using their vehicles' batteries, the grid can. So if a demand in power arises, the multiple car batteries on its system will smooth the fluctuating current out fairly quickly.
Utilising the power that is already 'out there' seems like a move in the right direction.
Across the world there are still many people who have no access to electricity. GOGLA - Global Off-Grid Lighting Association are tapping into the huge market for off-grid renewable energy. They tell us that since 2010 sales have increased by around 60%. Companies sell and install solar panels, lights, and batteries to households in parts of Africa and Asia. Customers can then use the energy stored in the batteries for lights and other power needs. Prof John Goodenough, an innovator and inventor of the lithium-ion battery, says humanity needs to fundamentally rethink how it produces and stores energy.
The global population continues to rise and energy needs rise with it. Encouragingly, climate change regulations have made a good effort to curb our uncensored use of fossil fuels, generating the 2015 Paris Agreement by nearly 200 countries on the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But we can't in good conscience expect our governments to do it all for us. My dad, who is now into his 80's, seems to know far better than I do what items can be recycled and which cannot, I simply place rubbish I'm not sure about on the fridge and my dad throws it into one of the three designated bins.
However, I am aware that not everyone wants to take part in keeping global temperatures 'well below' 2.0C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times. Some people simply can't be bothered. And others have a reason: "I don't believe all that environmentalist stuff, the earth's climate has always ebbed and flowed." And some people attach a religious significance to it.
I was staying with a Christian friend for a few days and I asked him where I placed the empty plastic carton that I had just finished pouring fruit juice from. "Throw it in the bin with everything else" was his reply. I said "But what about recycling?" To which he replied "We don't believe in all that." And I guess that some people, for various reasons don't "believe in all that."
Some people use the excuse that the world is not anywhere near 400,000 years old so the data scientists use must be flawed. That seems to be their conviction, but another way of looking at it is perhaps their understanding of scripture is wrong and God expects us, as good stewards, to take responsibility and do what we can to preserve His earth. And the point of renewable energy is that despite the amount of energy we take from the wind or the ocean waves, there is still the same amount left for tomorrow, unlike fossil fuels.
Recycling and renewable energy is now a priority on many people's agenda, whether it's McDonald's phasing out plastic straws or Starbucks' promises of producing a 100% recyclable cup, or even exercise equipment that uses the person's muscle power to create electricity. We all have a part to play and if we don't play it then we may find ourselves crying out as singer/songwriter Randy Newman points out in his song 'I Think He's Hiding':
Come and save us
Come and look at what we've done
With what you gave us