Five new stamps were recently issued by the Royal Mail to celebrate 100 years of the Magic Circle. There are tricks on all the stamps. Two suggest you rub the stamp to make spots on a magician's scarf disappear or pyramids appear.
The Christian faith is about making things look different but it’s not done by magic. For most people, there are aspects of life they’d like to make disappear with nothing more than the rub of a finger on a stamp. Uncertainty about a decision, a physical problem or difficulty in a relationship can seem to drag on in such a way that we long for a solution to appear as if by magic.
There are also things we’d like magically to appear in our lives and in other people’s - a greater feeling of fulfilment, a stronger self-confidence, a more intense well-being. Such developments happen but there’s no superficial way of guaranteeing that they will.
When Jesus came to his disciples, risen from the dead, he offered them the gift of peace. The hands he held out to them bore the marks of nails used to fasten him to the cross. The changes he offers to help make in our lives are not magical ones – his ability to strengthen us in our struggles and deepen our joy is there because he has faced the worst of life and not been overcome by it.
Testing the claim on the stamps that they really are magic will provide a temporary amusement for the users. Trusting the claim of Jesus to offer lasting comfort and support can make a permanent difference to our lives.
Teachers at their union’s annual conference this week will discuss whether the word "fail" should be banned from use in classrooms and replaced with the phrase "deferred success". The Education Secretary, along with much of the press, has given the idea 0 out of 10. But Mrs Beattie, who has proposed the idea, is sticking to her guns, even though, as she says, "We’ve had deferred success with it".
Failing is such a common experience in life that everyone has to learn to deal with it. Indeed learning from disappointment contributes significantly to the constructive development of our lives. It helps us discover how we might do things more effectively in the future or, sometimes, that we’d be better off not trying that particular thing again.
The ability to respond like that, though, requires a basic sense of self-worth. Frequent failure can lead to people taking it out on themselves. They even start taking responsibility for things which are not their fault. They begin to describe themselves, not just things they’ve done, as failures. They’ve lost confidence in themselves and no longer believe they’re able to do anything other than fail.
Today, whether we’re dealing with children or adults, we could encourage anyone around us who is feeling incompetent by affirming them as people. That’s what God does – not waiting for us to become perfect before showing us how much we are loved
. Perhaps we too can treat with respect and affection those we know who often seem to come a cropper. That way we will be changing their experience of failure, not just what it’s called.
An academic paper has been accepted for presentation at a conference organised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Called "Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy", it was, unbeknown to the organisers, written by a computer and consists of meaningless mumbo-jumbo complete with nonsensical charts and diagrams. It was submitted by three MIT graduate students tired of reading in learned papers sentences such as: “We implemented our scatter/gather I/O server in Simula-67, augmented with opportunistically pipelined extensions."
Words can often sound impressive but mean nothing. So can actions. Jesus said that we should judge people by their fruits. We will want what we say and do to be more than superficial pretence and come from deeper within us.
Most of us can also spot what’s said or done by others simply for show. We’re not as easily fooled as the organisers of the MIT conference. But our response to people who have a desperate need to impress need not be simply to reject them as frauds. Their need to behave in that way may be the result of a lack of self-confidence, of not having been loved enough. We can perhaps, in the way we treat them and value what is real and worthwhile in them, begin to help them discover they do have a deeper value and don’t need to show off.
John Peel, who died three years ago today, had probably heard more of the world’s music than any other human being in history. Living at a time when recording put so much music on the market, and having his passion for anything vinyl, he had the opportunity to listen to huge numbers of songs. With ‘the best ears in broadcasting’, he also had the ability to pick out what would appeal to others and to promote it to the benefit not only of individual artists and groups but of lovers of music everywhere.
John Peel knew a good thing when he heard it. Many musicians benefited because he took the time and used his skill to promote people who had potential. The ability to listen to others and to pick out and promote what is best in them is a great gift. But we all have it to some extent. We are all capable of encouraging what we see to be good in the people around us. It’s something which is especially important when their qualities are not being generally appreciated.
John Peel said that everything changed for him when he first heard Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel", adding "where there had been nothing there was suddenly something". Our ability to support others can also turn what appeared to be nothing into something. Let’s today try and have the ‘best ears’ around and hope, in a much narrower circle of course than John Peel’s, to have the same ability to help other people to fulfil their potential.
Ever since the company’s 1960s advertising slogan, Beanz has meant Heinz. There are of course other types of baked beans but they’re not beanz. Yet only now are the labels on the outside of the tins going to spell the word like that and describe what’s inside in the way generations of British children have thought of them. It’s all part of a rebranding, costing £5 million, designed ‘to ensure that baked beans continue to be seen as contemporary food’.
Human beings do not always reveal on the outside the reality of their inner selves. Sometimes what would emerge if they did would not endear people to them. But at least as often, the opposite is true. Other people have known all along that there were qualities in an individual which were attractive, creative and dynamic; it’s the person’s lack of self-confidence which prevents those attributes being fully expressed.
Perhaps today we might look out for people who need egging on to develop greater belief in themselves. Many such people find it’s encouragement from others which enables them become outwardly the kind of people that inwardly they already are.
What would lead anyone to swallow 95 worms in 30 seconds? Or 982 friends to want to get together to become the largest number ever to sit on whoopee cushions at the same time? Whatever it is, 60,000 such record attempts are reported each year to the Guinness Book of Records.
We wouldn’t all do such extraordinary things to achieve recognition but we all want it, particularly if we feel we’ve done something especially loving or skilful, or surmounted exceptional difficulties. It’s unnerving if it seems we are the only ones to have noticed how well we’ve done.
One of the advantages of the belief that human beings are never out of God’s ‘sight’ is that God, if no one else, will be aware of such achievements and delight in them. It’s easy to focus on the knowledge that God is aware of our failures but our successes too give God pleasure.
Let’s today be aware of this basic human need for recognition and tell people if we notice something they’ve done well. If our own achievements and struggles go unacknowledged, perhaps there are ways, less ostentatious than the ones recorded in the Guinness Book of Records, of gently drawing them to the attention of those around us.