DISTRACTION TACTICS

Are you glued to your mobile phone or other device? A friend of mine doesn’t have a mobile phone, seldom listens to the radio and television-viewing is just one daily news bulletin. Do we need a distraction from the often grim world news in order to have a more balanced perspective of life? Here are just two distractions that I enjoy:

Bird-watching. I love it that birds are unaware of world news and just carry on as they always have. I’ve seen a goldcrest on a riverside tree, starlings on chimney pots, blackbirds turning fallen leaves to locate hidden worms, long-tailed tits chattering in the apple tree, gold finches balancing precariously on seed-heads. Red kites float across leaden skies and I even heard, then spotted, a parakeet – a newcomer to my part of the world.

Pulling on wellies to take a walk from home into the lanes, woods and fields. The ground has been frozen or gloopily muddy for weeks, but there’s always something new to spot – crops in the fields, a scuttling shrew, catkins, random nutshells, rabbit poo – and rabbits if I’m lucky. Dogs bound across open spaces, as glad to get out of the house as their owners; a three-legged cat comes to say hello when I pass its front-door. Roe deer lift wary heads from the grass to stare at me; sheep – cocooned in enviable thick fleeces – chew non-stop. A kingfisher streaks silently along the river, its iridescent plumage flashing turquoise and orange.

We can’t – and shouldn’t – ignore the news, but sometimes we can get a better life balance by setting aside weighty matters for awhile. Thank God for nature’s bounty.

BUTTER AT THE BUS SHELTER

Broken glass from a vandalised bus shelter spattered the ground. A shelter no longer fit for purpose. Anyone standing there would feel the full blast of rain, wind and cold air. Maybe your life in recent months has felt similarly bleak, battered and exposed to unwelcome elements.

Still intact on the end of the bus shelter was an advert. Three words stood out in bold capital letters: THERE IS HOPE. Hooray! Sounds promising. The small print revealed that hope was to be found in cooks. Cooks? Hmm… The bread I made yesterday was OK; some of my other culinary efforts wouldn’t be rated highly. Could my prowess in the kitchen bring hope? Possibly, sometimes, but its benefits would only be temporary – enough to satisfy tummies until the next meal. At the bottom of the advert was a tiny picture of a pack of butter – a delicious brand as it happens, but butter is a minuscule element of my diet. So… if not in cooks or butter, where might I find lasting hope?

In the sharp shards of a shattered world, the Bible tells us that hope is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. He came into the brokenness of the world as a vulnerable and dependent baby. His experience of human life was like ours: joys, sorrows, life, death. The good news that gives hope to those who believe Jesus to be the risen Saviour, is that he is the mender of souls, the one who takes human brokenness and makes people whole, who comes to bring hope, who IS hope and travels with those who let him. Hope to take into 2021.

ALWAYS OPEN

What’s kept you going during this year of restrictions and closures, of the absence of hugs and social interaction, of fear, disappointment and despair? For me, it’s nature: the cycle of seasons from the emergence of spring bulbs to summer’s wild flowers, to the brilliance of the autumn colours and, in this winter season, the reflections in muddy puddles of fleeting sunshine, plus some stunning rainbows and glorious birdsong.

What else has kept me going? Technology. Who’d have thought I’d ever say that! In the absence of personal contact with family and friends, what a comfort it is to be able to keep in touch by Zoom, streaming, WhatsApp and other modern means of communication. We’re having to adapt to changes – some welcome, some not.

Yes, we live in changing times. But we have an unchanging God. If we’re restricted, he isn’t. When we’re fed up, he isn’t. When we’re stuck indoors, he’s there with us; if we take a daily walk, he’s happy to come too – and doesn’t have to socially distance. It’s not in his nature to keep at a distance. It’s we who put up barriers between him and us – not him! Let’s remember that Jesus came into the world as ‘Emmanuel: God with us,’ that he is the same yesterday, today and forever, that he said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” that his door is always open for us to go into his presence. He comes as the wise counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father and the Prince of peace. Our Christmas celebrations this year may be different, we may not see loved ones, but none of us has to be alone, because Jesus invites us to join him – this Christmas and every day.

HOPE IN BLEAK TIMES

A few remaining flowers hang limply from a largely bare fuchsia shrub – their attempt to defy winter’s onset. My garden has mostly lost its summer and autumn colour and appears frozen – if not literally, at least in time. Winter time. And yet . . .

New shoots of rhubarb are pushing up through the ground, in preparation to show off the first harvest of a new year. And, bizarrely, daffodil leaves shot up in October – a somewhat premature but hopeful promise of blooms to come.

Life, despite the promise of a Covid vaccine continues to be, for many people, as bleak as my winter garden. But maybe the garden holds a clue to hope. Those daffodils, for example. I hadn’t planted the bulbs deep enough; well, you try digging through chalk! The leaves’ early appearance hasn’t done them much good. They have to wait for favourable conditions before buds can flower. Similarly, perhaps we need to have deep roots and a strong foundation from which to flourish securely – when the time is right. Going deep doesn’t mean hibernation, nor even dormancy, but preparation – to build up resilience and reserves for growth and future blooming. We wait patiently for warmer and brighter days.

Christian believers are urged by St Paul to, “Keep your roots deep in Christ, build your lives on him, and become stronger in your faith.” Oh, and as he continues, “Be filled with thanksgiving.” As Advent continues, we have the opportunity to reflect on Jesus coming into the world to bring hope and new life.

ON THIS DAY

Half a century ago today, my (now) husband and I got engaged. We did it properly: prospective husband having a quiet word with my Dad while Mum and I waited to see if the answer would be, ‘Yes! Please take her off our hands!’ It was – though not put in quite that way. My parents were delighted for us and threw a party.

1970 had been an uneasy year in the UK. It was the last year of pounds, shillings and pence and, with decimalisation coming the following year, we had to learn a new way of doing money. A gallon of petrol cost 6s 8d (33p) and first class post during the 70s rose in price from 3p in 1972 – the year we married – to 10p in 1979. You could buy a loaf of bread for about 10p and a can of tomato soup for 8p. By the time our first daughter was born in 1976 only half of UK homes had a phone, and colour televisions were new and costly.

The moon landing had happened the year before our engagement, but months later down on earth there were rumblings and grumblings of unrest – particularly regarding the future of the coal industry. France mourned its President, Charles de Gaulle, and Paul McCartney filed a suit against his fellow Beatles to dissolve ‘The Beatles and Co.’

1970 doesn’t seem that long ago, though to younger people it’s history. Life has advanced so much since then – population growth, technology, prices . . . Is it any better or worse than 50 years ago, or just different? We adapt to the era in which we live. Even in this uneasy year, each new day is a gift and, whatever today holds for you and me, it continues the ongoing adventure of life.

DOING ADVENT

Doing Advent is a bit like doing jigsaws – you start with one piece and gradually build up the picture. This year’s build-up to Christmas started early. A penguin lights up a front garden; there’s a reindeer in another. ‘Christmas’ lights have brightened local houses – inside and out – since October. What joy they give on ever-darkening afternoons here in the UK! This year we need as many bright lights as possible.

We take one day at a time, place pieces of a jigsaw puzzle one by one, open one door each day on the Advent calendar. When the jigsaw or Advent calendar is completed we see the whole picture.

In Advent we prepare for something special to happen, for someone special to come. Father Christmas? Yes, according to my current jigsaw puzzle where a little girl hands a letter to the postman for special delivery to Santa. Jesus? Yes, for Christians he’s the someone special. His is a double coming. The first time was a couple of millennia ago – as Saviour and as light into a dark world, to give hope and banish fears, even in the darkness. Advent also looks ahead to a second coming of Jesus – when he’ll return to the world as judge and as King. The world will be renewed. Paradise lost, paradise regained.

How should we live in these in-between times – between first and second comings? Maybe we’ll recognise piece by piece who Jesus is, and build up a picture of why he came and how the first and second comings impact us – and impact us more than electric penguins, Father Christmas or chocolate behind calendar doors ever could. Happy Advent!

BUBBLE WRAP

Who likes popping the bubbles in bubble wrap? Satisfying isn’t it . . .

Did you know that bubble wrap gives, according to one manufacturer, high quality cushion protection, that small bubble wrap has a bubble size of 10mm and large bubble wrap has a bubble width of 25mm? You can get anti-static bubble wrap and oxo-degradable bubble wrap, coloured bubble wrap, and even paper bubble wrap.

Why the interest in bubble wrap? Well, apart from the popping enjoyment, it’s a visual aid to me of the situation many of us find ourselves in during this pandemic. If we live alone we can form a bubble with a family or another person. And you see the advantage – being wrapped around by a protective layer of care. In addition to the single person’s option for bubbling, we’ve seen sports bubbles – whole rugby teams, for example (not sure how that works in a scrum) or a school class where a group of children are able to be together in, hopefully, a place of safety and mutual care.

Let’s hope it won’t be too long before the pandemic social bubbles are not required. But the idea of being wrapped around with supportive care is appealing – in any circumstances. Even now there may be someone near you who is not in a bubble and would welcome it. Perhaps eventually we’ll continue to bubble – and value the bubble concept more than we did before the events of this year happened. We were made for companionship, the ultimate example of which is God himself who wants to enfold each of us in his love. Happy bubbling!

DISTINCTIVE LEADERSHIP

What sort of leader do you look for and look up to? Someone who’s decisive? Dithery? Dictatorial? Diplomatic? Distinctive?

In sport, business and politics we see a pattern of rise and fall, of changes for better or for worse. A good leader is respected and stays put, unless or until things go awry when he may be booted out.

Is there anyone out there who can make things work well – and consistently – on the world stage in a time of national and global challenge? At present you may think that nothing works, that nobody has the ultimate answer to the world’s ills. In what or whom, then, can we place our hope? An old proverb: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not unto your own understanding. We may try our best, use our own understanding, try to find solutions, and make decisions. It may make us feel we’re in control, but human control can mess up. So might we risk putting our trust in the Lord? Or do we think that the Lord is asleep, disinterested or remote? If you do believe in God, biblical history plus faith experiences indicate that God is constant, and his plans bigger, better and more unexpected than we could ever imagine.

If human managers and leaders – or any of us – in 2020 struggle, perhaps it’s a wake-up call to look to, and cooperate with, a higher authority – not as a last resort, but as our first port of call. Do I want the Lord in my corner – and in yours? Yeah. OK, I need to trust him.

STARS AND SPROUTS FOREVER

I love WhatsApp. Who would have thought that the humble sprout, beloved of many of us, loathed by the rest, could spark such a prolonged string of comments and emojis from family members! That, along with the starlit night skies and two birthday parties on Zoom, has provided entertainment and joy – and some welcome diversion from news broadcasts – in recent days.

Orion stared in at the front bedroom window last week while The Plough was high in the sky above the back of the house. Living on the edge of an urban area, I have to pick a non-light-polluted spot outside to study the stars properly. Head craned back, I try and count them. The more I look, the more I see. And more. And more. It’s weird that they’re all up there during the day, yet we don’t see them. Sun, moon and stars in their courses above. And they’re there on grey days too. Ever present . . .

. . . unlike sprouts which are seasonal. Oh, the joy now they’re back on the market stalls or ready to pick from the allotment! These little mini cabbages, perfectly formed, tasty when not cooked to a pulp, are an autumn and winter treat, every bit as good as summer’s strawberries and raspberries. Agree?

Our family is divided on the merits of the sprout but not on the merits of the stars which we all find truly awesome. Stars and sprouts forever, that’s what I say.

MASTERS OF OUR FATE?

The fishing industry in Norway. Climatic hazards in Australia. The value of UK exports to the USA. Road and rail transport… A few issues to challenge the little grey cells of politicians, scientists, economists and geographers – now… and then. For these were subjects which I had to address in my 1967 Geography A’ Level exams.

What has changed in half a century? Very little it seems as far as those issues are concerned. But other things have changed: population, pollutants, plastics, pandemics; plus communications and connections – for better or worse.

For all our advances, we still face variations of the same half-century-old concerns. In reality such mind-challenges have occurred throughout the history of human beings. Are we any better at problem-solving than we were? Do we have more capable leaders than in the past? Is every generation limited in what it can achieve? Are we, as Winston Churchill said in a speech in 1941, ‘Masters of our fate and captains of our souls’?

A Geography exam today might modify its questions to ask how the fishing industry in waters around western Europe and Scandinavia might be supported and fish stocks managed responsibly. It might request an analysis of how bush fires in Australia – and elsewhere – might be prevented or managed better. And which countries the UK should trade with, and how.

The world faces daily dilemmas. Much wisdom, in addition to research, knowledge and experience, is needed. History demonstrates that kingdoms and politicians rise and fall. We may do the best we can while we can and, if we have any sense – and humility, ask the one whose world we inhabit, for wisdom.