Some robotic traffic cones can be programmed to move on their own. For example, if workers arrive at 6 a.m., the cones could move from the shoulder to block off the lane at that time, then return to the side of the road at the end of the day. The robots are placed at the bottom of the cones and are small enough not to greatly alter their appearance. Well that’s OK then! At least we won’t lose the familiarity of their delightful shape and colour – it’s bad enough that we might be shunted into line by a cone with a mind of its own.
Being told where to go and what to do is not something many of us like. It can make us unreasonably angry to be ordered about, especially for no apparent reason, on the roads and elsewhere. It feels an infringement of our independence. When there are usually many more complicated and significant threats to our freedom, it’s easy, and possibly helpful, to vent our frustration on the more trivial limitations which are imposed on us.
Most of us want to be in charge of our own destiny. Indeed the biblical story about the behaviour of Adam and Eve in the Garden indicates that it’s always been part of human nature. Taking the fruit against God’s orders was symbolic of a desire to leave nothing up to God. But Jesus suggests that real life is not to be had in holding on to our freedom. It begins instead with letting go our desire for independence and allowing God to guide and direct us.
Letting go of our resistance to following directions from beyond ourselves and allowing ourselves to be guided in unplanned directions has its rewards. Possibly too, discovering the value of responding this way in the big things will mean we’re not so aggravated by life’s less important irritations.
Read: Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. (1 Peter 2.16)
Rejoice: in the range of choices each day brings
Reflect: in what areas of my life am I most conscious of resisting God’s guidance?
Remember: God sees a wider picture than I do.
Resolve: to listen to suggestions other people – and God – may make about my life.
A Health and Safety memo to BBC staff seemed to state the obvious. Entitled ‘Revolving Security Door User Instructions’, it began “Follow these simple steps each time you use the doors: to enter the secure space move directly into the revolving door compartment”. The memo followed an incident at the BBC’s offices in Birmingham in which a worker cracked a toenail when her foot got trapped.
What the memo said about how to move out of revolving doors is not reported. In life though, where we have got ourselves into situations which just seem to go round and round, it’s getting out that’s the real challenge. Whether it’s at work, in a relationship, or simply in the routine of our days, we can sometimes feel trapped. We may see a life beyond what restrains us, and yet be unable to take that step out towards it.
Someone to help us through the door can be a great help. Jesus frequently helped people break out of a cycle of unhappiness – a man waiting 38 years for healing at the pool of Bethsaida, a former soldier rampaging frantically round a graveyard, a tax collector uncomfortable in his role. Faith can inspire us to look for ways out of stifling repetitiveness and to find the courage to make the required moves.
Jesus is a great support when we’re trying to escape from what stops us moving on. The help and advice of friends and family can also be enormously valuable. Each situation has its own difficulties and no memo with simple answers comes down from on high. But sometimes taking the risk of stepping out is preferable to continually going round in circles.
Read: The Lord said to Moses, “You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north” (Deuteronomy 2.1)
Rejoice: in times when being bold has paid dividends.
Reflect: Are there any areas of my life where I feel I’m trapped?
Remember: When I’m going round in circles, God goes round with me.
Resolve: to be alert for ways God might want me to be or do something different.
Mr Wu, from Liaoning City in the Shengyang province of China, uses the branches of living elm trees to make chairs. As the ‘chair’ grows, he constantly trims and guides it into shape before the chair is finally harvested. Mr Wu says it takes him about five years to grow a tree chair, from saplings to the finished article.
The kind of patience needed for such long-term craftsmanship is a useful quality in life. As circumstances influence our progress as people, our task is gradually to encourage those developments in our personalities and skills which have potential. We’ll also want to redirect or cut out those which, if allowed to grow, may not make us the kind of people we want to become. While we’re doing this, our roots continue to be the source of our life.
Jesus used the analogy of a vine to describe his relationship with his followers. He and those who accompanied him needed to grow together like vine and branches. A crucial part of the process, though, is the pruning away of what is inhibiting creative growth.
Like Mr Wu’s chairs, we’re alive and growth takes place in many different directions. As it does, we may wish to encourage some developments and restrain others. The result may be temporarily uncomfortable but allowing God to be involved in the growth and in the decisions about what to prune will enable us gradually to take shape in a way that’s both attractive and functional.
Read: I am the vine; you are the branches… my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15.5,1-2)
Rejoice: in the growth we see in ourselves when we look back on our lives.
Reflect: Are there any developments in me or my lifestyle that God might want to prune lest they distort my true shape?
Remember: inviting God to share my life will create healthy growth even if I make no other changes.
Resolve: to let myself grow into the shape God has in mind for me.
An Under-13 Rugby Union side was told by their manager to stop playing at half time. The side, Norwich, were being beaten by Shelford, 50-0. Nigel Francis said he’d told the boys to give up because they had played in a Sevens Tournament the previous day and were exhausted. It was not going to be good for them to continue. The opposing manager wasn’t happy. ‘It’s a poor example to set to children – to tell them it’s OK to give up if you’re losing.’
Sometimes, on the other hand, it takes courage to admit there’s no point in continuing. Indeed, there are times in life when giving in and accepting defeat is the gateway to a new, more positive way of moving forward. On one occasion, the disciples of Jesus had had to give up after a long night of unsuccessful fishing. Jesus however saw where a good haul of fish was to be had and following his instructions, their luck dramatically changed.
There may be aspects of our lives today where we are battling on because we are unwilling to admit failure. Sometimes such determination is appropriate and eventually productive. But just as often, the willingness to abandon the struggle somehow creates a new opening. It may be that by giving up we are enabled to see things differently or to become more willing to receive help and advice. God is often more able to help us when we stop struggling. To let go in a losing battle is not necessarily a poor example to set.
Read: There’s a time to search and a time to give up, (Ecclesiastes 3.6)
Rejoice: in moments when God has helped me see what I’m doing in a more sensible light.
Reflect: Am I struggling on in any situation where it would be better to give up?
Remember: God won’t give up on me.
Resolve: to be on the lookout for new opportunities God is creating for me.
There are some places where we feel we have a right to be left to think our own thoughts. But in Amsterdam even such privacy is threatened. In a central Amsterdam café, a toilet has been installed which is fitted with sensors to detect exactly what visitors do and to pass comment if appropriate. “You might consider sitting down next time,” the toilet politely suggested to a male Reuters reporter in a female robot voice. Creator Leonard van Munster sees the project as an artistic venture. The toilet might remind you to wash your hands, ask you to lift the seat, or if you’re using the privacy for a quiet smoke, suddenly start coughing and warn you about the dangers of cigarettes.
The long term popularity of this new convenience remains to be seen but most people don’t need to go to an Amsterdam loo to hear an unbidden critical voice. In the privacy of our own minds, words are spoken which undermine our self-confidence; they suggest we ought to be doing things differently or fundamentally challenge our competence. Sometimes the phrases used remind us of authority figures from our past; sometimes their origin is less easily determined because their source is an amalgam of all those who in our lives have put us down in one way or another.
We should treat such voices with the same amusement as we would a Dutch lavatorial interlocutor. Our minds might well offer us appropriate words of caution which should be taken seriously. But our inner critics are easily distinguishable from these because of their generally scornful attitude. They don’t deserve to be taken seriously and to greet their admonitions with a dismissive smile might be the best way of silencing them for ever.
Read: Turn away from godless chatter. (1 Timothy 6.20)
Rejoice: in people whose acceptance of me builds my confidence.
Reflect: Are there people whose dismissive attitude to me, now or in the past, I allow to undermine my self-respect?
Remember: not to let it.
Resolve: to listen to voices which affirm me – God’s and other people’s.
The Buddha’s birthday is marked at the monastery at Chogye in South Korea by a small group of boys aged between 7 and 11 having their hair shaved and entering the monastery. The boys spend a few weeks experiencing the life there. Then, when the festivities are over, they return home.
It seems unlikely that the lads will grasp much about the theory lying behind the way things are done in the monastery. The concepts behind a monastic life will probably have escaped them. But what they have observed and felt, the atmosphere in which they have been living, will undoubtedly have made its mark.
In this the boys reflect the experience of all who try taking religion seriously. There is much that our minds are not capable of grasping, many concepts which we can’t take in or which, if we do, we don’t find helpful. Often it is more at the level of our senses, of our experience and our feelings, that religious faith seems worth embracing.
It’s not just our religious beliefs which are sometimes difficult to explain to ourselves, let alone to others. Maybe we can’t put into words why we think a certain course of action is right or what we believe is going on in a particular relationship or why we expect events to turn out in a certain way. In such situations we have to trust our feelings and intuition. When we give these aspects of ourselves a chance to grow, and listen to what they tell us, it won’t just be in religion that what we grasp goes deeper than concepts, theories or words.
Read: The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3.8)
Rejoice: in times when my instincts have proved trustworthy.
Reflect: Is my faith based more on facts or feelings?
Remember: God might speak to me through my intuition.
Resolve: to listen to my deeper self.
The task given to entrants for the Royal Mail’s Young Letter Writer of the Year contest was to write a letter to their Hero. Ursula Grover won with a letter which reflected her enjoyment of rhubarb. “I think you are extremely clever to have invented such a scrumptious recipe! I make it every Sunday because I LOVE it!!” she wrote. “When you eat it the taste of rhubarb comes zooming into your mouth and you feel absolutely refreshed. I am really lucky because my next door neighbours grow rhubarb and give some to me!”
Ursula’s letter doesn’t tell us which way of serving rhubarb gives her so much pleasure. But it does reveal an appreciation of what it’s so easy to take for granted: the wisdom of the one who worked out the best way of putting together the ingredients which make up her favourite pudding. And it isn’t just that she knows how to enjoy it, she’s learnt to make it for herself.
Our lives are made up of a wide variety of ingredients and we all have our own idea of the best recipe. When Jesus was challenged to come up with his, he offered one based around the commandments to love God and each other. But very few of his contemporaries seemed grateful for his suggestions about how to put a life together. On the first Palm Sunday some shouted and cheered but the moment soon passed. Events later that same week suggested a very different reaction.
We too sometimes turn our backs on new possibilities in our lives and on alternative ideas about how to blend the variety of our opportunities and experiences into a whole. But if sometimes we get the balance right and the resulting cuisine puts a “zoom” into our hearts, we may wish to say thank you. Perhaps the most appropriate expression of gratitude is continuing to go by the recipe of the one who gave us the ingredients.
Read: One of the teachers of the law ….asked: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one” answered Jesus, “is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: `Love your neighbour as yourself”
Rejoice: in the simple things that give me pleasure.
Reflect: Are there any of the ingredients God’s given me for my life I’m not using fully?
Remember: God doesn’t just provide the recipes and the ingredients, he helps us with the cooking!
Resolve: to show my gratitude to God for his part in my life by sticking to his recipe for it.