Welcome to Alnwick Baptist Church and the blog page for Chris and Caroline Friend.

These periodic musings are designed to give an insight into our perspective on life as Co-Ministers of the church either written individually or from both of us. Hopefully they will challenge and encourage in equal measure. During the COVID-19 crisis, we did weekly Wednesday Reflections  until  March 2021.

In a desperate mid-life crisis attempt to be hip and trendy (I celebrate my ‘Herbie’ birthday this year…if you know, you know), I’ve engaged with an app called BeReal. In a social media world where image is king and presenting yourself as the best version of you - whatever that means - this app flies in the face of that and basically encourages the user to portray it as it is, no filters, no makeup, no staging, just the mundane everyday. The element of surprise is that you never know when the ‘BeReal alert’ will ping on your phone so you have no way of preparing a background or environment that will make it or you shine.

As I type, my BeReal has literally just pinged which is ironic as I’ve been planning this blog since yesterday. My photo therefore shows my laptop as the front facing image and my mugshot, complete with reading glasses! as the rear. The group of people I follow on the app are now posting as well; these include – in no particular order – a floor tile, revolving doors, a blank piece of paper, a dog in the distance and a brick wall. This is excellent BeReal material….dull, boring, grey but real, so very real. None of them have taken the optional – but shaming – retake and I find myself applauding my fellow ‘realers’ for being true to the script.

Being real is something that comes more naturally to some than others. There are those who put on a front because they don’t want to reveal how they are actually feeling; there are often perfectly valid reasons for this, including past hurt, being let down, trust issues and of course that we're all wired differently. That said, I sometimes see posts on social media and I find myself asking the question ‘is that really how they are or is it a superficial front beneath which lies a whole world of pain?’. And then there are others who are easy to read. For good or for bad, I fall into the latter category. I’ve wised up a bit over the years about how honest to be and with whom but I’m still pretty transparent and, as an external processor, I rely on safe and sage like friends to speak with when I’m not in a great place. I need that space to be filter free and vulnerable.

I think the nature of my vocation means that some people’s expectations of ministers is that they’re strong and intact and able to deal with the rigours of pastoral life and ministry. In reality (and I’m discovering on a daily basis that I’m not alone in this) ministers are broken people who are holding it together by the grace of God.
I don’t apologise for my honesty on this but rather embrace it. In the almost four years that Caroline and I have been co-ministers at ABC, I’ve become aware on many occasions that my own vulnerability has been permission giving for others who’ve been struggling (and as a result feeling guilty about struggling) to acknowledge the pain that casts a long shadow, but fundamentally know that God is not distant in the struggle but closer than we think.

It's one of the reasons that I find the Psalms a good place to turn when the ‘BeReal of life’ feels like barbed wire being pulled through your soul. David’s transparency and dialogue with God is a template that we can all embrace in the most brutal of times. Psalm 13 is a case in point. First David lays bare his feelings……
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Then he petitions God to change it…
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. Before ultimately getting to a place of trust that the God He pleads with will stick close regardless of the pain he’s currently encountering...
5 But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.6 I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

If you’re anything like me then you can easily sit with the first two elements of that psalm and struggle to get to the chink of light at the end and with it, the truth of who God is.
And yes, the being real of life means acknowledging and owning the pain, hurt, rejection, frustration and despair but…and it’s a hugely important ‘but’…being a follower of Jesus gives us hope in the darkest of times and it is something that we’ve just gotta cling onto. I say this because the realness of our situations must also embrace the realness of a God who remains constant and that knowledge can counterbalance our real sorrow with the simple but profound understanding of a very real God, who IS and will always be.
I pass this on not as a theory but as something I’ve had to prove, especially in recent months, and therefore it isn't a dispassionate narrative that piggy backs on someone else’s experience; this is my story and so, in your own BeReal, I encourage you to make it yours.

It was 7:15pm. The wind was picking up, the rain was falling. I sat in the drivers seat with soaking wet jeans and wished that there wasn’t another 260 miles between here and Alnwick. It was going to be a long journey. The question in my head at that point being…’was this really worth it?’
I’ve been thinking a lot about the theme of Journey recently. I’m sat typing this at a coffee shop in Morpeth early on a Monday morning because Jas’s school bus run no longer exists and Caroline and I are taxi-ing the year 13 student for the foreseeable.
There is much that I’m learning about Journey….
Ipswich Town fans based in Alnwick are few and far between. Who knew?? In fact, Dad and I account for what I believe is 50% of the Northumberland base but I could be wrong. Nevertheless, I’d been looking for an opportunity to go and watch my ‘home’ team this season and spotted a fixture back in November that pitted Ipswich against league leaders Plymouth Argyle on 14th January. At the time, it was a ‘first against second’ fixture with Plymouth topping the table and Ipswich hot on their heels. By the time the fixture came round, Plymouth were still top and Ipswich were well….stuttering.
Regardless, Dad and I were committed to go and undertake the journey in a day. 'You're nuts!' said a few locals. 'You're a proper fan' said most Ipswich supporters. Perspective eh. The slightly inconvenient fact is that Portman Road, the home of Ipswich Town is situated a mere 322 miles from Alnwick. Undeterred we set off at 05:45 on a wet Saturday morning and travelled down to first Cambridgeshire where we hooked up with my friend and fellow Town fan, Dan and then onto Ipswich.
Portman Road was at capacity with just under 30,000 at the ground. We were situated near the very noisy away fans which was irritating with their constant prattle about being top of the league. However, when Ipswich scored, it was the best possible place to be as the very shouty Argyle fans suddenly were stunned into silence. The rain that had stopped came back with a vengeance during the match and I looked at my saturated jeans at one point and thought ‘I don’t care how wet I get if we win this’.
But, oh no, Ipswich wouldn’t be Ipswich without conceding in the 93rd minute and I sat there absolutely soaked through with Argyle fans getting very noisy again. Disappointed again!
The final whistle blew and all of a sudden, the long journey home loomed into view.
The first leg took us back to Cambridge and, sat side by side, Dan and I chuntered away about the ‘if only’ of that game, bemoaning the fact that we had – yet again – dropped points before the final whistle whilst callers to BBC Suffolk vented forth about how useless we were and all of a sudden every one on the line seemed to be a football manager who knows everything that’s wrong and what’s needed to put it right. Sigh.
So, back to my question: ‘was it really worth it?’. Well, lets start with the journey back from Cambridgeshire. Sat side by side, Dad and I chatted away about football, family, faith and life in general with all its highs and lows and the miles clicked over smoothly until we dropped off the A1 into Alnwick at just before 11:30pm. We’d done an 18 hour day and travelled 640 miles just to watch 22 blokes kick a ball of air for 90 minutes. Or had we??
As I walked through the door, I thought about the importance of viewing the Journey as a Process rather than a Destination.
My Twitter feed was full of fans saying that their journey home was longer and harder and more frustrating because of the result. But that’s now how I felt at nearly midnight after a day fully committed to and focussed on My Team. It was about the Journey of that day, not what happened in the 93rd minute of the game. Sure, I could focus on the disappointment of that and let it overwhelm me…or I could see the day as a whole and what I’d gleaned from it.
It was a day of conversation, friendship, atmosphere, highs and lows and just being Present to what the day brought.
It’s something that I have to take on board when it comes to my Walking With Jesus Journey because quite honestly I’m shoddy at it right now. I’m all too easily drawn into a tailspin when life goes wrong or not how I’d like it. ‘Where are you God?’ I shout...feeling like I’m alone in the wilderness. In actual fact, He’s right there beside me, but because I’ve allowed myself to put on blinkers and see only darkness and despair, my peripheral vision has been impaired and I'm not aware that the person walking adjacent to me... is still present...to me
The reality of the Discipleship Journey - as I indicated a couple of weeks back at the start of our Grow series - is that there is no ‘completion certificate’ because the Journey goes on for all our lives. Where and when and how you and I choose to interact with the companionship of Jesus is entirely up to us. That takes discipline and a desire to connect even - and especially - when the wind is against us and we're struggling to stand up never mind walk on. We may wonder about what we knew to be true as no longer being true and yet…and yet…what is unequivocally true is that He remains constant. We (read I) need to take the blinkers off so that we can be more aware of the 360* vista - which will include thunderstorms as well as sunsets - with a pragmatism of the bumps in the road that the Journey is and, with a growing awareness that the Person in closest proximity remains true to His Promise to always walk with us. The Journey best walked is when we fully understand that it is about 'us' not 'me'. My favourite verse from Isaiah 41 reads like this: I’ve picked you. I haven’t dropped you.’ Don’t panic. I’m with you. There’s no need to fear for I’m your God. I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you.

I had a conversation with someone very recently who introduced themselves and then said - completely uninitiated- ‘I’m not religious mind’. They continued to tell me about their life and every now and again punctuated it with ‘I’m not religious mind’.

Eventually I said ‘this may shock you but I’m not religious either’. Looking amazed and aghast they said ‘well that’s a mind bender….how come?’ I went on to say that I’m a ‘Jesus follower’ because He’s good news and religion is frankly…….not!

In fact on closer inspection of the gospels, you’ll find that Jesus himself struggled massively with religious people who didn’t want to know about his outrageous grace, compassion and forgiveness but rather held onto a rigid framework of legalism, control and hierarchy that suited their status quo.

As we approach Christmas, there are lots of people who are curious about Jesus but condemning of religion. And for good reason…..For many, they’ve been hurt in the name of religion, they’ve been isolated because of religion, they’ve felt worthless in the eyes of religion. Over recent years, I’ve come to realise that people don’t have a problem with Jesus, they do have a problem with religion. Because of the latter, they can’t see the former and it’s incumbent on us to change that narrative, Because…..Jesus is the healer of wounds. Jesus brings the isolated in from the cold. Jesus tells the worthless ‘you are the apple of my eye’.

The only way the barrier of religion can be smashed through is when people discover Jesus and all that He has to offer us.

As followers of Jesus, we are not here to defend religion, and nor should we, we’re here to direct people to God Incarnate, Light of the World, Prince of Peace, Hope in Despair. This Christmas, may it be said of us that we shun religion but shine Jesus.

I’m not religious mind……..guilty as charged.

We’ve been south for a few days with Caroline’s family celebrating anniversaries. It’s allowed time to relax for a brief time and step away from routine. Nevertheless, the news is the gift that keeps on giving, though from a different standpoint you may not use the word ‘gift’. So it was that I sat down to watch BBC South with my brother-in-law with the headline ‘Southampton born Rishi becomes PM’. Because of the wonders of technology, I was able to see a little from Look North a while later with their headline ‘Local Richmond MP Rishi becomes PM’.
Both headlines are true. You’ll probably find that elsewhere in the country and indeed the world, Rishi Sunak will have been ‘claimed’ as being ‘one of us’. That’s as far as I’m taking this political appointment you’ll be pleased to hear.
Later that night, and of much more importance (in my humble opinion), Ipswich Town were playing Port Vale in League 1 in another ‘massive’ fixture for the Super Blues. I kept up to date on Twitter with the highs and lows of going 2-0 up before being pegged back to 2-2 before finally we got a winner. Onwards to Charlton. The highlight of this game was a young 18-year-old called Cam Humphreys, a product of the Town academy, a local lad and, on his debut, scored the goal of the game, a screamer into the left-hand corner from outside the penalty area. Sweet. Gathered in the away end were nearly 2000 Ipswich fans who started singing ‘Cameron Humphreys, he’s one of our own’. There’s more to it than that but it doesn’t translate well to the written page… you get the drift. Not only was it Cam Humphreys that scored, but it was also our Cam Humphreys that scored. Born and bred in Ipswich where he grew up as a fan and now playing for the team. In a squad that has bought in some serious talent, when a local lad scores, it is all the better and it makes the fans even prouder. I saw it up here in the Shearer era where the Geordie scorer was adored by fellow Geordie fans. What it means to be ‘one of our own’.
I’ve been reflecting on this recently in a paradoxical way;  reminded of how the universally known Jesus of Nazareth was in fact…to put it bluntly…not that well liked in Nazareth. In fact, Jesus was so disliked by people who were once His neighbours that He stated ‘no prophet is welcome in his hometown’ whilst in His hometown. Awkward. This resulted in a foiled attempt by the locals to thrown Him off the nearest cliff. That's taking dislike to extremes.
Why this lack of respect? Well, Jesus said it how it was. Round here they’d say, ‘he called a spade a shovel’. Yes, Jesus was compassionate, loving, forgiving and His very presence was about being and saying Good News. But He also raised his voice against injustice and in doing so, spoke truth to power. He railed against those who said ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ when religiosity had patently got in the way of what God wanted for the world He created. History records Jesus as the Saviour of the World. He ushered in an era where we can all call God our Father because of Jesus. But there was a cost. Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate sacrifice and by that stage, it wasn’t just people local to Nazareth that had a problem with Jesus; the religious establishment turned many of those who saw hope in and through Him to call for His death instead. With His final cry of ‘it is finished’, many turned away thinking that ‘finished’ meant ‘over' and the chapter and indeed the book of Jesus was consigned to the bin. The truth was it was just the beginning. Dishonoured He may have been in His hometown, but He remained true to His Father’s purpose to break through the glass ceiling of religion to usher in amazing grace. I for one am pleased to hold a flag that bears His name and happy to claim 'follower' status to the One rejected by 'His own' but now honoured the world over.

Last Friday night Mrs F and I went ‘out out’ and ended up at our favourite Indian Restaurant. Caroline always makes an effort and I commented on the top she’d chosen as looking great. Unusually for me, I too had made an effort (!) inasmuch as my sense of fashion and coordination have never been that good but, you know, I’d tried.
In fact, I was so pleased with my shirt that I asked Mrs F if she was impressed with my choice. She said: ‘Chris, I love you and I love the shirt though it looks a little “stressed”’. I checked that I’d heard her right: ‘did you say “stretched”?’ I asked (because let’s face it, I’d have felt a whole lot better if she had used the word “stretched” to describe my attire instead !!). She wriggled a little uncomfortably in her seat but confirmed that she had indeed used the word “stressed”. I mulled on this and considered a) I have put a little weight on recently b) my shirt may well have shrunk in the wash - unlikely but I was grasping at straws - and c) regardless of either (a) or (b) my appearance to my wife of nearly twenty years meant that my shirt had gone beyond “stretched” to the extent that it was in so much ‘pain’ that it was crying out “stressed”. There are many ways in which I have used the word ‘stressed’ but to apply it to the stage beyond a shirt being too tight was a new one.
I looked at Mrs F who by now had moved on and was happily munching on a poppadum and said: ‘is it because we’ve been married for nearly twenty years that you feel able to be so honest?’. She looked me in the eye and said: ‘Chris, as I’ve just said, I love you’ there was a pause before she concluded ‘and your shirt still looks a little stressed’.
I realised two things in this moment; the first was that I was loved and the second was that honesty is a hugely important aspect of that love, even when honesty can be uncomfortable to hear.
I had no doubt whatsoever that I was loved and this was not in any way diluted because of the uncomfortable realisation that I either need to buy a new shirt or lose weight; rather that the depth of love was also being evidenced in her honesty.
There’s a passage in John’s gospel where Jesus talks honestly about what it means to follow Him. Some said ‘this is way too hard to understand. Who can accept it?’. And yet the twelve disciples, those closest to Jesus, even if they were struggling to get their heads around His teaching knew, they just knew, that He was worth sticking with. Jesus eventually asks them “Are you also going to leave?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know you are the Holy One of God’.
Following Jesus does not mean that we get to hear the answers to our questions that suits us. Instead, we get the answers to the questions that will give us life and help us to follow Jesus closer.  At different times this could look like: Encouragement. Affirmation and/or Challenge. It may mean that sometimes we may need to hear God’s word to us through others in a way that makes us examine our appearance and see signs in our lives that are ‘ill-fitting’ or stressed and need to be addressed so that we can better line up with the character of Jesus.
Over-arching all of this though, there needs to be a recognition that we are unequivocally loved by our Father God who starts all His sentences with us with ‘Chris, I love you’ Every.Single.Time. This affirmation will always be front and centre with God no matter where we find ourselves. That's a stress-free truth if ever there was.