EVEN THOUGH…

A few years ago my brother drove me round parts of the northeast, a vast and beautiful landscape of gently rolling green hills. Only a few decades earlier coalfields covered the area. They’ve gone and nature has taken over. The changes were devastating for the population but the northeast continues to undergo rejuvenation, giving hope for the future.

Wild fires have wreaked havoc in the northwest and Wales in the recent hot weeks, blackening the landscape. Nature, however, will rally and, given time, habitats will be restored and fresh shoots appear. Hope again.

Farmers are worried. The grass has dried up and precious winter feed is being used to feed cattle. Grain isn’t swelling because of a lack of rain, though the hot sun means harvesting can happen earlier than usual. It’s likely that farmers will lose income. They’ll hope that next year will be better.

Such scenarios are not new. Centuries ago, a man called Habakkuk was fed up with the destruction of landscape and livelihood that resulted from violence, fighting and injustice. He complained to God but eventually said, “Even though the fig-trees have no fruit and no grapes grow on the vines, even though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no corn, even though the sheep all die and the cattle-stalls are empty, I will still be joyful and glad because the Lord God is my Saviour.”

Many changes are unwelcome and scary, and glib platitudes are unhelpful. Nevertheless we all, like Habakkuk, need to grasp even the tiniest vestige of hope in whatever our changing landscape may be.

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FOOTBALL, FARMING AND FLAGS

A huge England flag hangs down from the tiny latticed upstairs window of an 18th century thatched cottage. In the fields around the cottage haymaking is in full swing. Has a bare-chested Ross Poldark been scythe-swiping? Alas, no. Presumably the cottage’s owner is a football fan, hooked on the World Cup and awaiting England’s game on Tuesday. And the haymaking? Done by the machinery and skill of a 21st century farmer.

Modern communication means we can follow the fortunes (often literal fortunes) of sportsmen and women around the globe. You don’t even have to sit at home to watch on TV. Your phone or other mobile device makes it easy to view where and when you like – and shrinks the globe at the same time.

What would the original occupant of that thatched cottage make of today’s local and global world? Would he be bewildered, terrified, amazed…? And what about us? Do we hanker for the simplicity and parochialism – and, yes, toughness – of Winston Graham’s Cornwall or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex?

In changing times – and life continuously evolves – we may thank God that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” Are you scared about the pace at which ‘progress’ advances? Be reassured by the stability and unchanging nature of God. Jesus identified with the people and culture of his time, using everyday happenings and observations of life to illustrate his teaching. If he were here today, think how football, technology and flags might feature…

SERVICE WITH A SMILE

You may be expecting a tennis blog, given the title of this piece! But tempting though it is, I’m writing about a different sort of service.

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall visited Salisbury last week. This was a morale boost to the city that had been shaken by the poisoning incident in March. The royal couple met shop workers whose businesses had been temporarily closed, the police officer who was injured, local residents and tourists. It was a beautiful day, everyone had smiles on their faces, the band played jolly music and people went home afterwards feeling better for the royal visit.

Whatever your views of royalty, there can be little doubt that the royal family has a sense of duty that means service with a smile. How easy can it be to walk, on a hot day, through crowds of people, taking a genuine interest in each person they speak to and making people feel special?

The challenge to me is: Am I as willing to do good, to show compassion, to work my socks off, for other people? The Queen sets an example as the servant queen and she, in turn, takes her example from the servant king, Jesus Christ, of whom she said, “He makes it clear that genuine human happiness and satisfaction lie more in giving than receiving; more in serving than in being served.”

STRONGHOLD

Stronghold isn’t a word that’s in my everyday vocabulary, but it carries an immensity of meaning that lives up to its name.

The Round Tower at Windsor Castle, the Keep at Dover Castle, the huge walls of Caernarfon Castle… All those fortresses were built to keep people safe inside and keep unwelcome invaders out. That the castles still stand, hundreds of years after being built, is testament to their solidness, strategic position, and the vision and leadership of William the Conqueror and Edward I.

The dictionary defines a stronghold as a place that has been fortified to protect it against attack. True, but I like to think of it also as a place of sanctuary.

A friend was going through the pain of a terminal illness. She asked that part of Psalm 27 be read at her funeral service. This was her testimony, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?”

A Christian rock group sang, “Oh Jesus, you’ve got a good strong hold on me.” Whatever a Christian believer’s circumstances, they can echo those words. God is a solid fortress that protects, and provides sanctuary, against whatever attacks – physical, mental, spiritual – come a believer’s way. He is a stronghold and he has a loving and strong hold on their life.

GENERATIONS

Ken Rosewall was at the French Open final today and presented the trophy to… yes, Rafael Nadal. It was Rafa’s 11th French Open title. Ken Rosewall, who won the French Open Singles twice, first played at Roland Garros aged 17 and was there 63 years later to give the cup to Nadal. Runner-up, Dominic Thiem, first went to Roland Garros aged 11 to watch… Rafael Nadal! There was something rather wonderful about seeing the different generations of tennis come together, united in their love and prowess for the game.

I first saw Ken Rosewall at Wimbledon in the 1960s. I interviewed him some three decades later at Hurlingham in a pre-Wimbledon special event and he was kind enough to let me pose for a photo with him. At that event the upcoming newcomer on the tennis scene was Greg Rusedski who, today, was in the TV studio giving expert analysis on the match between Nadal and Thiem.

How fascinating it is to see the respect that successive generations of players have for each other. I wonder whether there is that same respect, generosity, kindness and love within our families across the generations. It may be challenging at times, just as tennis matches are challenging, but it’s surely worth working at. Just as each tennis player in every generation has a unique personality and style and skills, so each member of a family has something to contribute which commands the respect and love of everyone else.

LET THERE BE PEACE ON EARTH

Love and peace. “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” goes the song. Laudable though that sentiment is, putting it into practice is a challenge.

Yesterday, on Test Match Special, a young lad was interviewed. If you didn’t hear it, Google Test Match Special, click on Podcasts and you can listen now or download it. 16 year old Waleed Khan describes how he was left for dead after a terrorist attack in Peshawar four years ago which killed 135 of his school friends and 20 teachers. His injuries were multiple and severe. His face had to have major reconstruction surgery and some of his treatment was carried out in Birmingham where he now lives.

He shows no hatred towards the perpetrators; rather he concentrates on leading a positive life, helping others to see that peace and love can prevail over evil. His is a remarkable story. Needless to say, he is cricket-mad and keen on other sports too, participating in as many as possible!

Waleed Khan’s testimony is powerful. Though his circumstances are somewhat unique, the message of peace and love isn’t new. Listening to an interview such as this may shame us into realising that many of us have little to grouse about and much to be thankful for – so what’s stopping us from sharing those two virtues? Think how someone might be encouraged by your kind word, listening ear or gentle smile.

STORMS

Last night’s electric storms over the south of England demonstrated how little control we humans have over nature. Noisy, bright, spectacular, terrifying… Whether you stand at the window in wonder or dive under the duvet in fear, one thing is certain: there’s nothing you can do to stop a storm. If ever there was evidence that human beings aren’t in control of the universe, a storm such as yesterday’s surely provides it.

All seems stable in life until the unexpected hits. The storms of life take different forms: illness, bereavement, job loss, a breakdown in relationships, burglary, debt… Nothing stays the same for very long and we have to learn how to manage different and evolving scenarios. How do we do that?

Jesus’ disciples got caught up in a storm when out fishing in their boat. They were terrified. What was worse, Jesus their leader and friend, was asleep! They shook him awake. “We’re going to die!” they yelled. Jesus got up and ordered the storm to stop. It did, and all became calm. Jesus, as God, was in control of the universe he’d created. We can’t stop storms but if Jesus is in our ‘boat’ we don’t face the storms alone.