Social Distancing Reflections

There are so many health benefits of human contact and hugs, and these benefits have been denied many during the current coronavirus pandemic. In addition, dating for single people is fraught with difficulties, and it’s a total nightmare for tactile individuals.

As Virgina Satir, a respected family therapist said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” It concludes that hugs are having a great role in improving our life’s quality. In addition, hugs also have many health benefits you have never expected before. Source

You can easily find out more by clicking on the above link (and Google is your friend), and it’s well worth doing so. I might blog about it sometime, but it’s not the main subject of this post.

One friend commented that being safe (in lockdown) isn’t the same as being alive, because alive isn’t the same as thrive. I know that many can identify with this inability to thrive in lockdown. She also said, “I’ve never felt so alone in my entire life. I’m losing both good and bad parts of me. I’ll never be the same after this”.

Since the start of pandemic I’ve been reflecting on how social distancing might affect our long-term human interaction, especially with strangers. Initially, I discouraged handshaking in Wallsend Corps, greeting each other by touching elbows. This was met with a mixture of amusement and anxiety, the latter due to the uncertainly of what the future might hold, but it wasn’t long before the first lockdown was announced.

A phrase I coined at the start of the pandemic was: Social distance with emotional and spiritual connection. If I could go back twelve months I would change it to: Physical distance with emotional and spiritual connection, as this better reflects my considered thoughts. We need all the social connection we can get within the restrictions. But laptops, tablets and Zoom meetings have their obvious limitations, we need actual human contact to thrive. That said, video calls have been a lifesaver for many.

Another friend said, “Our [adult] son has profound and multiple learning disabilities including autism. He is in a care home. He is non-verbal and touch is how he communicates whether it’s to hug you, hit you or take you to something he wants. Needless to say social distancing hasn’t been good for him. When he sees us to wants to come over to us but can’t. Socially distanced walks with a carer bringing him in the wheelchair to make sure we don’t get close to him is the best way to deal with. Once when on the walks he tried reaching out to stroke a dog that came up to but had to be pulled away. When the dog came up it was lovely to see his smile but heart breaking to see his disappointment when he wasn’t allowed to touch the dog. I dread to think how all this is affecting him long term. However one lovely thing when we’ve done video calls with us, he will touch the screen to acknowledge us.”

I’m not coming to an overall conclusion, but these are personal reflections. We all know how physical distancing is affecting us and our loved ones, but we can’t be sure of the long-term effects. Will we remain ‘distant’ from others, even when we go back to some sort of normality? Reaching out to others, with its associated physical contact, is vital for us to thrive individually and collectively. May we never lose this.

77 Million Paintings (Brian Eno)

During the five years I lived in Wallsend I was looking for this, but could never find it. I finally found it after moving to Norton in July this year following my retirement. What is it, you ask?

Brian Eno is one of my heroes. He’s a creative, a musician, a thinker, an innovator, an artist, a music producer – someone with a finger in many pies, who always produces something new and meaningful.

What I was looking for was 77 Million Paintings (released in 2006) – a book, a digital art computer program and a DVD. It was an evolutionary work in Brian Eno’s exploration into light as an artist’s medium and the aesthetic possibilities of generative software. This piece utilises the computer’s unique capacity as a generating processor to produce original visual compounds out of a large quantity of hand-painted elements, along with similarly produced music. I’m pleased I finally found it.

The release consists of two discs, one containing the software that creates the randomised music and images that emulate a single screen of one of Eno’s video installation pieces. The other is a DVD containing interviews with the artist. The title is derived from the possible number of combinations of video and music which can be generated by the software, effectively ensuring that the same image/soundscape is never played twice. Wikipedia.

You can find me on Goodreads (click the link), and see all my 2020 books here.

28/06/20 Shaping the Future

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This is my final Sunday message before I retire in a few days time. Technically, I’m on holiday, but I’ve been pleased to share these weekly thoughts during June.

I mentioned at my welcome in 2015 that moving to Wallsend was more than just a new chapter in my life and ministry as a follower and servant of Jesus Christ, it was a whole new section of the book. I’d married Naomi the previous year and we arrived with Freddy who was three months old. I now leave to retire with our completed family, Matilda and Pollyanna having been born during our time here.

At a time of change we naturally think about making a fresh start, sorting things out, reflecting on how we can do things better, and taking positive steps into the future.

Although the future is unknown, we can play our part to make it a better place. It has to start today, because the only place we can live is in the present. It’s said that there’s no time like the present. So, if we want to shape the future, we need to start today.

We don’t need a special occasion, or a time of change, even though it often helps. We can take positive steps that will help shape the future of our own individual lives and that of others at any time.

Let me share some lovely words by Denise Brine with you:

Father God, I seek your guidance,
For I have a part to play
In the shaping of tomorrow
By the way I live today.
Take my hopes, my dreams, my passions,
Take my strength, my weakness too.
Shape my life; fulfil your purpose;
Start today; make me like you.

If I want to shape tomorrow
Then I need to start today,
Seeking, Lord, a revelation
Of your will and of your way.
If my passions, prayers and lifestyle
Are the witness people see,
Do I need a reformation
Of your Kingdom-life in me?

My todays will shape tomorrow!
Does that prospect please your eyes?
Are there changes that must happen?
Are there faults to recognise?
Shape me as seems best to you, Lord,
Start today, and help me see
That tomorrow will be better
When your life is seen in me.

David (in Psalm 51) prays in verse 10: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. The Message paraphrase words it in a very interesting way: God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life. Matthew Henry suggests that David is praying, Lord, fix me for the time to come.

Life isn’t easy for many people today, especially with the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. We need to be there for them and for each other. We can share the best of humanity, as well as the love of God, by small acts of kindness to others. A simple smile, an offer of help, a genuine word of encouragement, beautiful actions of love.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
We are [together] on the road,
We are here to help each other,
Walk the mile and bear the load,

I will hold the Christlight for you,
In the night-time of your fear,
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.

May that prayer be answered in each of our lives as we daily move into an unknown future, but one into which we can all take a hopeful and positive contribution.

31/05/20 Pentecost Sunday

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Greetings on Pentecost Sunday. This would have been my last Sunday leading public worship before my retirement on Wednesday 1 July 2020. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been possible because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Next month I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home before retiring and moving away from Wallsend.

It’s a matter of personal regret that I’ve not been able to lead Wallsend Corps in worship over these last few months, have a public farewell, or hand over leadership in the usual way. My sincere hope and prayer is that Wallsend Corps will be able to move forward into a new future under the leadership of Cadet (soon to be Lieutenant) Luke Cozens. I’m currently preparing handover information and I’m in contact with Luke to ensure a smooth transition of leadership in unique circumstances, ones I believe can be seen as both a challenge and opportunity. God bless you, Major John Ager.

Here’s a short video message from our Territorial Leaders Anthony and Gillian Cotterill introducing a Pentecost Sunday worship meeting, click here for more details. You can find an outline of it by clicking here.

Here’s my Bible message for Pentecost Sunday, the Bible readings are Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 which can be read by clicking on the links.

When Chichester Cathedral was being renovated in 1962 they found that the medieval builders had built a magnificent cathedral on poor land and hadn’t extended the foundations far enough. As a result of this oversight, the 20th Century renovators had far more work than anticipated.

We don’t need reminding of the parable of the house built on the sand and the one built on the rock. It’s so important that we build our lives upon Christ, getting the foundations right and then building in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But let’s go right back to the beginning, literally, to the Book of Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel. Genesis means ‘beginnings’, it’s a book that deals with the beginning of everything, not in a scientific way, but in a far more profound way.

Genesis focuses our attention on certain aspects of life, the first eleven chapters paint a picture of the world as God meant it to be, but they also show the appalling mess we’ve made of it; the message is timeless, because we continue to make a mess of it.

In these opening chapters of the Bible we have parables of immense significance. From there on, the rest of the Bible show us what God has done to get us out of the mess, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

We have the story of Noah and the Flood, the message being that the world merits nothing less than total destruction. The Flood symbolises God’s timeless judgement on humankind, as appropriate now as when it was written.

Noah wasn’t perfect, but he represents those in every age who walk with God. God always offers a way back to himself, if only we live our lives with reference to him.

Then we have the story of the Tower of Babel, a story that echoes the Fall: human defiance of God. But instead of the story being set in a garden with two people, the setting is bricks and mortar with a developing civilisation.

The age-old problem is that individuals and humankind as a whole build for their own glory rather than for the glory of God.

William Neil writes:
Man wants to run the world in his own way. He wants to put himself at the centre of his civilisation on a pedestal inscribed with the name: “Glory to MAN in the highest”.
Note how verse 4 says: “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for OURSELVES”.

This is the mistake we make again and again. There is only one God and Creator, we are created in his likeness, and our destiny is to know him, to live in fellowship with him, humbly seeking and obeying his will for our lives.

The builders’ desire for autonomy recalls the rebellion in the Garden of Eden, and establishes the need for Abraham’s redemptive faith in the midst of international disorder. Far from the original garden, the first cities in Genesis represent arrogance, tyranny and wickedness. The city on the Babylonian plain was a magnet for human pride and idolatry, a tower that reaches into the sky. NLT Study Bible

When we put ourselves first, God comes and confounds our plans, and there is chaos and disorder. The confusion of tongues in the Tower of Babel story is but a symptom of a much deeper disharmony that prevents unity and common understanding.

We talk about people ‘not speaking the same language’, meaning that their positions are so far apart that they might as well be speaking a different language.

We see this between individuals, groups and nations. Pride, injustice, and selfishness: all preventing meaningful communication and reconciliation.

But had you ever considered that the story of Pentecost balances the story of the Tower of Babel?

The divided language of Babel becomes the common language of Pentecost, the story is turned upside down; or more correctly the right way up.

The miracle of Pentecost was that a new language came with power, the language of love, the language of the Spirit, the language of unity, a language that all could understand; the love that God showed in sending his Son as Saviour and Lord, a suffering servant for all humankind.

God’s love in sending Jesus is something that speaks to the human heart far more eloquently than words could ever do. As we open our hearts and lives to God’s Holy Spirit he fills and empowers us to live this language of love in the world.

God can work in and through us when we’re open to God’s Holy Spirit, who takes our weaknesses and makes us strong, who takes our brokenness and makes us whole. Then the Holy Spirit can do the work of building the kingdom.

We can always move forward in his power and strength; building on the past, building in the present, and building for the future – especially in these new circumstances of coronavirus. Building, not for our own glory, but for God’s glory.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with thee I will one will
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with thee the perfect life
Of thine eternity.

Natural Health Service

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Today’s family afternoon excursion into beautiful nature wasn’t just daily exercise, but emergency treatment from the Natural Health Service.

We’re all in the same situation in the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, but everyone has their own personal challenges to face. For us, it’s having three young children, me trying to work from home, and preparing for my imminent retirement in July and moving house.

We’ve had a few bad days, and were both physically, mentally and emotionally drained. So, not only did the therapy walk do us the world of good, spending quality time with Naomi and our children really helped, but also observing and photographing nature.

Note: All the photos were taken with my smartphone, I just got in close, or low, or used unusual angles. See all the original here. Why not have a go for yourself?

Impending Retirement

close up photography of cup of coffee

My retirement was never going to be a normal one, the reason being that I have three young children under six, but that was before the coronavirus pandemic which has well and truly thrown all our plans into disarray.

The earliest I could have retired was February 2020 but, for a variety of reasons, I decided to work for another five months until the start of July 2020. So now I effectively retire at the end of May, as June is taken up with holiday entitlement.

We’re moving to a rented property in Norton, Stockton-on-Tees, on or soon after the beginning of July. Although this is in doubt because of government lockdown restrictions affecting property work and removal companies. We also have the problem of a house and garage which need sorting out, with charity shops and the local tip closed.

I have mixed feelings about retirement. It’s a huge change in our circumstances and we’ve all made many friends in Wallsend, not least our children. Also, most of our married life has been spent here.

Although I won’t have any work responsibilities in retirement, I’ll remain a Salvation Army Officer. I’m looking forward to Christian ministry in different circumstances, with possibly new areas to explore, and I already have some idea of what these might be and how they might be developed. One thing I won’t miss is administrative responsibilities.

Overall, I’m looking forward to retirement and the opportunities it’ll bring, I just wish the details weren’t so obscured by clouds of uncertainty.

Update 11/06/20: We had planned to move on the actual date of my retirement, but because of the coronavirus lockdown we’ve been forced to delay it a week until Wednesday 8 July 2020. You really don’t want to know the ongoing problems we’re having to face and deal with, but we’ll get through it one way or another.

Update 27/06/20: The struggle is very real at the moment, with all sorts of problems delaying our plans, as the deadline for moving fast approaches. Today we discovered rain getting into our new home just inside the main entrance where the roof of the extension is joined to the main building. Hopefully, this can be sorted out soon.

Four by Four and Four by Sixteen

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Photography (a smartphone is all you need by the way) and writing, whether personal or for work, are two of the things that are currently helping me maintain my mental health and sanity in the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

Partly by accident, but also by design, I’ve developed a way of posting them on social media and here. I take four square photos and then stitch them together with an Instagram app to make a four by four photo which I share then to Instagram (and automatically to Facebook and Twitter). I repeat this three more times, and then stitch the four stitched photos together into a four by sixteen photo. The above stitched photo is today’s offering from my afternoon walk in Richardson Dees Park in Wallsend.

I then add all the individual photos to a Google Photos album, and you can see the ones from today here. I’m particularly pleased how the dandelion shot turned out, I spotted it in a ray of sunshine that didn’t extend to the background, making it stand out dramatically.

I also took four photos of some fungi on a tree stump that I’ve stitched into a standalone four by four one. Again, you can see all the individual ones here.

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Oh, and even though I concentrated on nature, I was with my family. Here’s the one shot I did take of them (Naomi was taking photos of the children), and I immediately loved it.

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Morning walk in the early light

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I don’t know about you, but (like many people in this coronavirus pandemic lockdown) my sleep pattern is all over the place. Last night I couldn’t get to sleep until the early hours and then I woke up early, and that was without the usual alarm clock of my bladder (it’s an age thing). When this happens, I sometimes feel like lying in bed, but at other times I just get up. This morning it was the latter, and I also decided to go for a walk.

The above are some of the photos I took with my smartphone. You can see all the individual photos here, and another set (not shown) here.

Companion piece: Therapeutic Nature

See also: 10 Tips for Top Sleep and Digital Wellbeing (Sue Thomas)

Note: all photos unedited except one to adjust the composition slightly.

26/04/20 Bible Thoughts

brown book page

Just some Bible thoughts this Sunday, when we would have been uniting in worship at Wallsend with North Shields and Shiremoor Corps, rather than a full online meeting. This is neither an apology nor excuse, merely a reflection of the kind of week I’ve had in lockdown. I’m simply doing what I can and not what I can’t. My hope and prayer is that these thoughts will be an encouragement to you, as well as stimulating your own reflections and thoughts. God bless you, Major John Ager.

Bible Reading: Philippians 2:1-11

One of the corps I was appointed to in the past had the following mission statement, this was its raison d’être: To put Jesus first and grow as Christians, through Bible reading, prayer, worship and fellowship. To share God’s love and forgiveness, especially through loving service in the local community.

That was and (as far as I know) still their purpose as a church and community centre; the focus of that group of Christians, both individually and collectively. It’s important to have focus and purpose as a fellowship of God’s people. Yes, I know businesses have mission statements, and the church is not a business; but the principle still applies. Having a defined focus helps us to be better Christians.

The church is currently unable to meet because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and some of the things that are essential are not able to happen in the normal way. Having said that, the church is finding new ways of doing things, although nothing can fully replace the actual meeting of people in a place of worship. Collective worship and fellowship are a vital part of the Christian life. Whilst many people say you can be a Christian without going to church, I disagree.

Watch the beautiful (although actually sad) song I Am A Rock by Paul Simon and pay particular attention to the lyrics.

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark
December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island

I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island

Don’t talk of love
But I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

The words are very telling, we need each other. The lyrics of this wonderful song are actually the very antithesis of what it means to be a Christian. Yes, we can be hurt when we tear down the walls we build around ourselves, because we become vulnerable. But, as Christians, we follow one who became vulnerable for us, and when we open up to him we open ourselves to the love of God and others.

As we gather together again for worship and fellowship, at some yet unknown date in the future, we may have to reassess our overall vision.

As Salvationist poet Will J. Brand once wrote:
…so much we deemed essential is forever left behind.

See also: No man is an island (John Donne)

Rising Sun Country Park

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The Rising Sun Country Park is a wonderful place to visit, just two miles away from where we live in Wallsend. It’s somewhere we’ll miss when we move away from the area on my retirement in a few months time. It’s also the location for a parkrun.

In the current coronavirus pandemic the main facilities and car park are obviously closed, but it’s still open for exercise and there’s plenty of space for social distancing. We had a lovely walk round part of the country park yesterday. The above photos are some that I took while out with my family.

You can see all the photos taken on my smartphone by clicking here.