Waiting for the right moment

I’m not very good at waiting… I’m better at jumping in feet first… but I’m learning at least to look where I’ll land before I leap, and occasionally to wait until the timing is right.

(Actually that’s not quite true- I’m learning to ask my wife whether the timing is right and to listen to her wisdom).

Sometimes when we see things we want to do, to own, or to stop, we want to act now- arrest him, bomb them, buy that, go there and do it all right now. If nothing else it would help us to feel involved… as though we’re doing something, even if its not the best thing.

After 9/11, many people were watching the US to see what they would do, how they would respond, and in the eyes of some, many of the armed conflicts in the last decade have their roots not only in the events leading up to 9/11, but also in the response by the US government and their allies.

What would have happened if the US had waited? Some might have thought the government weak or indecisive, as has been said in recent weeks of Obama’s stance.

But sometimes it takes strength of will and determination to wait- to observe, to reflect, to act rightly and in the right time.

If you’ve been wondering what my Bible passage today is, it’s Acts chapter 1, verses 1-11, Jesus’ last few words with his disciples- where they went from being the followers (disciples) to being the messengers (apostles). But very importantly he told them to wait. Not until a certain date, but until an event- one that they’d recognise when it happened.

‘what are we doing?’

‘We’re waiting’

‘Why are we just sitting here doing nothing?’

‘We’re not doing nothing- we’re waiting. We’re waiting until the right time’

I’ve no idea what film/book, if any, those lines come from… but they could have been said by the disciples to each other during this next time.  We’re waiting until the right time. And the right time will be when God decides to send his Spirit. And we’ll know when its come. We’ll know what to do.

But when is the right time to respond to violence, terrorism and oppression? Should we wait or is it more that the action must fit the time… there may be a time for military action, there may be a time for political action, there may be a time for prayer, for support for aid agencies.  The greatest wisdom comes in knowing not only how to act, but when.

Let’s pray for ourselves that we can know this today, and for those political leaders attempting to bring a peaceful end to the bloodshed in Iraq and Syria.

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E100- Sometimes its not what you say but how you say it…

 

So, looking this week at some of the miracles that we can see in the Gospels, the things that Jesus apparently did, which seem to run contrary to our normal expectation of what can happen- supernatural events which if taken literally defy explanation. Today I was reading a passage in Matthew 14 where Jesus walks on the water (well, actually first of all I was reading a passage in Matthew 15 about someone’s daughter being healed, but that’s because I’m a numpty and can’t find the right page… but anyway).

The thing is, I’ve read this passage a dozen times over the years, and it fascinates me- did he do it? how did Jesus walk on water? Was it a mass hallucination? The answer I have for all those questions is what I’m looking at on Sunday morning, so you’ll have to wait for that.

However, there’s a phrase that sticks with me, something that Jesus says to Peter: ‘you of little faith’.  And the reason it strikes me is that we can read it so many different ways… Bear in mind, Peter has seen Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the night, and has said ‘if its you, tell me to get out of the boat and come to you’… and he has actually walked on water as if it were solid, until his doubts get the better of him and he becomes afraid. At that point, as he starts to sink, he calls out ‘Lord save me!’ And Jesus response? catching hold of him, he says ‘You of little faith’

You of little faith, shouted over the noise of the wind, to a fool who should have known better than to get out of the boat if he was going to be afraid?

You of little faith, called to a follower who keeps putting his foot in it and never seems to learn the lessons his teacher puts in front of him so often?

You of little faith, spoken to a friend who has so much to learn, so far to journey?

You of little faith, almost whispered to a man who is like a child in his arms, who thought he was about to drown but has been saved?

You of little faith, an admonishment that is a term of endearment at the same time?

You of little faith, but from little faith we will build a church?

You of little faith, but at least you had enough to climb out of the boat?

There are times when I read this passage, and I hear the voice as one telling me off for my own over confidence, and at other times I hear it as one lifting me out of my fears… 

Its not always the words we use, its how we say them that expresses their meaning…

How are you hearing that voice, those words, today?

(with thanks to Mike Pilavachi and John Ortberg for their wonderful teaching on this passage). For more by either of them, go look at stuff for Soul Survivor or here

Jesus, that man’s got attitude!

Sorry, couldn’t resist that… so this morning we were looking at the Beatitudes, which crop up in Matthew chapter 5, at the beginning of the sermon on the mount. I had the interesting challenge of doing a talk that was for all ages at the beginning, with children hiving off after a few minutes, and if that wasn’t hard enough I was speaking on a passage which, the last time I did some teaching on, took 5 evening sessions and even then seemed crammed. I’m going to have words with the guy who sets the preaching rota in our church…

Anyway, here’s the gist of what I said:

Attitude- good attitude, bad attitude, someone with ‘attitude’… it’s a word that describes how what is inside you can be seen…  (dictionary- a settled way of thinking, a physical position of the body showing a mental state, uncooperative behaviour, individuality and self-confidence.  a good attitude isn’t necessarily being good at something, but its how you carry yourself- whether you’re a champion or a steady mid grade… Sometimes people refer to the beatitudes in that way- as Jesus’ description of how we should be- the ‘be attitudes’. If that’s so, what do you think are some important attitudes for us to have as Christians? How should we be? And what attitudes would we be wise to try and avoid?

 

Here’s a few- Proud   Humble       Kind    confident        uncertain        grumpy

 

Or if we want a list from the Bible-in Galatians 5 these are called the fruit of the Spirit, but they’re also the attitudes of a Christian:

 

Loving     joyfilled       peaceful         patient        kind     good     faithful        gentle     self-controlled

 

In this passage Jesus talks about how his followers should live- not so much the way to be, but the way to blessings… some translations actually use the phrase ‘happy are you when…’ but its not really a kind of ‘don’t worry be happy’ or a Pharrell Williams song, its about something much deeper… if you want… the chances are that for most of us, something this past week made us happy- made us smile and lifted our spirits… it might have been a joke or a flower or child or whatever… but what makes us feel deeply blessed- content- joyful… that’s the kind of happiness Jesus means (and actually I think its what Pharrell Williams is trying to talk about)…

 

Its actually quite a radical manifesto both in terms of what it talks about and what it asks…

 

This is a manifesto for the kingdom of heaven- which is not a place on a map but a place in our hearts- its our attitude… when we take these phrases, those virtues listed as the fruits of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians, and we live them out- as we begin to try and live by those values ‘the kingdom is near’.

 

As we hear the beatitudes, the intention isn’t that we should pat ourselves on the back… yup, got that one, nor that we should beat ourselves over the head for our failure- I’m not hungry enough for righteousness, but that we should recognise our intentions and that they fall short of our own hopes. By recognising that we fall short, we come without pretence or false confidence to God… and because of God’s grace we are provided with all we need… to take the first phrase ‘poor in spirit’… is one of those phrases that we ‘get’ without often understanding- what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Poor… lacking in what you need- not just a bit short when it comes to the holiday fund, but struggling, unable to pay the bills or for necessities… but we live in a world of credit and short term loans… the poor are fooled or forced into behaving as if they haven’t a worry… Spiritually poor, means without the spiritual resources to get by- and those who understand that they are spiritually poor are those who’re most eager to receive all that God has for them- if I know I’m poor, then I want all that God has for me… and I’ll grow in faith etc… the kingdom of heaven becomes clearer in my life and my actions… Those spiritual resources being the basic disciplines of the Christian life- intimacy with God, worship of God, sharing the love of God in the world…

 

Intimacy through personal prayer, fasting, Bible study

 

Worship through corporate acts, glorifying God through our lives, putting God first

 

Sharing God’s love through practical action, through being with people, through standing against injustice, through sharing our personal stories of God…

 

Blessed are the poor in spirit- does that mean I should avoid those things so that God will bless me? No- when we realise we are poor, we’re open to receive… God blesses us when we realise we have held back from a real, close relationship with him. God blesses us when we worship fully in all our lives. God blesses us when we give all we have… we receive things we never hoped for.

 

By raising the bar, Jesus isn’t making a relationship with God even more exclusive than the Pharisees or the religious authorities he so often clashed with. No- he’s making it clear how impossible it is for us on our own, and promising that God will help us to reach those heights- so let us mourn instead of feeling a bit sorry, lets humbly recognise our own spiritual poverty, lets desire a right relationship with God as if it was water in the desert, lets offer mercy when it sticks in our throat, lets be willing to step into a conflict and create peace, lets be persecuted for our faith… because Jesus promises that we will not be let down by God when we do.

 

Oh, and I was very well behaved- the idea of including the sermon on the mount scene from Monty Python’s the life of Brian was very tempting… but I didn’t. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, or just want to see it again, here it is:

E100- over halfway, and tempted to give up…

In long-distance running there is a phrase ‘hitting the wall’. Its when you get to a certain point where you just don’t see how you can continue. Your legs are lead (not jelly- that was a few miles back), your tank is empty and you just want to curl up on the floor, close your eyes and for it all to be over.

Well-trained runners know its going to happen and have techniques for getting through that stage. They might be able to go further before it happens, and it might not be so terrifying… but its still out there.

This week, in the long distance Bible Challenge of the E100, we’ve passed the halfway mark- we’ve gone from Old to New Testament… for some it might feel that its an easier ride now (at least in terms of getting your heads round it), but for others who’ve struggled through Proverbs, the prophets, Kings and Exodus there may be a sense of ‘what? we’re only halfway?’

Interestingly, today’s passage from Matthew 3 talks about the baptism of Jesus, and then his time in the desert… from the highs of a close encounter with God to the time of temptation and difficulty… When you’ve made a commitment to do something, or just started out, there may be a first flush of enthusiasm but what keeps you going when that fades? How do we keep committed for the longer term? Talking about discipline and routine is helpful in once sense, but it can also allow us to forget that reading the Bible is part of our relationship- if we’re following Jesus we’re not just in a training regime.

For me its always about remembering the big ‘why’… why do i pray? why do I read the Bible? why do i live as a Christian? because of God’s love for me, my love for God- because of the relationship rather than the specifics… just as in my relationships with people I may meet them in different places and share life differently with them over time, so my relationship with God is growing and dynamic because I am a living creature.

E100- all quiet on the heavenly front

So you live in a society where God apparently guides you, and is the leading force behind your people’s culture. Where for a period of time the leaders understood themselves as standing in the gap, hearing God for the people and with the responsibility to lead the people towards God, and where on occasions they had understood that blessing to be for and on behalf of the wider population- the whole region rather then just their own people group… but its all been quiet for a long time on the heavenly front. No kings, no judges, no prophets, or at least none that were shown to be faithful to God by their words and actions.

What does it mean to be the people of God when God seems to go quiet? Does it mean that you’ve been given all you need, all the guidance that a people can reasonably expect and so now you just need to get on with it? Does it mean that God has turned away and left you for good this time- and if so why? Is it a test? Is it just one of those things- you have to wait for some things in life, like exam results or the sunrise.

And then, in the silence, a voice speaks- first in one place, and then in another- first in the Temple to a priest (where you might expect it) and then in hicksville to a young woman (which was definitely unexpected).

You know how at the end of the night, when the sun has yet to appear, things often go quiet, and the light changes so slowly and night shifts imperceptibly towards day… and then there is the first moment when the sun itself peeks over the horizon.

The passage I’m referring to is Luke chapter 1– the beginning of his account of the life of Jesus. The priest is Zechariah and the young woman is Mary and the beginning of the new day is the message that the great prophet John the Baptist is soon to be born, and the dawn that is coming is the birth of Jesus- a new day dawning on the world, the coming of the kingdom of God in a new way where there is no silence between heaven and earth.  And we still live in the beginning of that kingdom- on the brink, with sorrow and fear and tragedy and loss beside us even as we see the growing signs of the light, the love, the healing and the life of the promises coming into being around us each day.

And I’m aware that this all sounds a bit crazy, as if I’m living in Narnia or another fairy land. But the thing is that I know in the last day, in my normal life, I’ve seen God touch the life of a sane intelligent man, I’ve prayed for miracles in the lives of desparate strangers, and I’ve had my own prayers answered through conversations and phone calls. God works in the ordinary and the humdrum, bringing his Kingdom into our lives… and the sound is breathtaking.

E100- what happens when we hear God…

In modern life we tend to use the word prophet with a degree of caution- outside of industry. In media and communications etc its more acceptable to speak of someone like Steve Jobs as a prophet because of their entrepeneurship and vision (anyone ever think of Richard Branson like that?- after all, he has gone from selling records out of a phone box for an office to investing in commercial spaceflight…).  Anyway, within church circles its a word that we use with great caution… because when we speak of someone as a prophet in that respect, it doesn’t just mean that they have vision and determination, but that their vision, and the reason for their commitment all stems from God- and so if we speak of them as a prophet, we ought to listen… if only we could understand…

Its much easier, and probably more honest to speak of someone or something as ‘prophetic’ ie, pointing towards God, moving towards God’s will. It allows a greater degree of frailty- I know I try to live my life in a way that is prophetic, but would be terrified by the idea that anyone thought I spoke as a prophet.

(as an aside- behind all of this lies a deep uncertainty about what it means to be a prophet, or what prophecy and all those other words mean.  At the bottom line, a prophet of God is a person who speaks and shows others what God is saying, and if you look through the Bible and at the lives of other people in history who could have that label attached to them, its usually uncomfortable listening, because its calling people back to something they’ve left, or challenging them to stop a way of living that is wrong for those who call themselves the people of God- mind, a prophet speaks more often to the people of God (Jews or Christians depending on your Testament) than to others… just as in the same way its important not to offer a judgement on someone’s life if they don’t yet believe that God exists or is interested in them…)

Back to the point- its about listening. Prophets listened to God, and heard from God- in that order. If we’re wondering why God doesn’t speak to people we know, its probably more to do with whether those people are listening than whether God is speaking… There’s also something about how we expect to hear from God. The Bible contains examples of people hearing from God through Scripture, through things they saw in the world around them, through dreams, through strange meetings, pictures, an audible voice, even through the words of other people.  So God can communicate in all sorts of ways.  Today of course, those things still work and are still possible, along with a whole bunch of other things.  Wondering what to pray for? Watch the news. Wondering who needs your support? take a quick look at who’s posting what on Facebook. Or what if God was to use modern technology to speak to us?  Here, taken from my friend Brian Patterson’s great blog here, is one way that God might communicate with us today… and see also the link to a Twitter Bible at the bottom.

Here in text shorthand are the 10 commandments as they may appear on modern Moses’ mobile or cellphone.
BY JAMIE QUATRO

1. no1 b4 me. srsly.

2. dnt wrshp pix/idols

3. no omg’s

4. no wrk on w/end (sat 4 now; sun l8r)

5. pos ok – ur m&d r cool

6. dnt kill ppl

7. :-X only w/ m8

8. dnt steal

9. dnt lie re: bf

10. dnt ogle ur bf’s m8. or ox. or dnkey. myob.

M, pls rite on tabs & giv 2 ppl.

ttyl, JHWH.

ps. wwjd?

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/god-texts-the-ten-commandments

AND meanwhile Blogger Jana Riess has the whole Bible on Twitter. Check The Twible.

http://www.religionnews.com/2013/11/13/can-god-take-tweet-twible-delivers-holy-writ-twitter-wit/

I guess the point is, don’t rule out anything, and be prepared to hear God’s voice in everything…. I watched Karate Kid the other night (the recent one with Jackie Chan), and the line ‘Kung Fu is everywhere’ stayed with me… Jackie Chan uses everything around him in a way that is unmatchable, and its beautiful to watch… that’s what faith should be like.

Following the herd or heading off piste

I’ve been thinking about doing things differently. Not differently for the sake of it, but differently because you know, deep down, you ought to. And I’m not doing one of those clever euphemistic things where in 500words time you’ll realise I’m talking about wanting to become a ballet dancer or my views on the environment or any other ethical or career choice… I’m talking about doing things differently, because deep down inside you know you ought to.

That’s what lies at the heart of the passage I was reading this morning from 1 Samuel (great name for a prophet, great name for a son too, by the way). It was the passage in chapters 8-10 where the people ask for a king. It doesn’t quite come out of nowhere- there’s a history of good leaders followed by bad ones (Eli… his sons, and now as Samuel gets older it looks as though his sons aren’t shaping up too well), but the people of Israel aren’t saying to Samuel ‘we want better leaders’, but rather ‘we want leaders like the neighbours have got’. We want to be like them. We don’t want to stick out.

Sometimes its important to be like those around us- because that’s how society works. I was talking to a friend today about whether owning a house is actually something that ethically sits with the Christian faith. I was suggesting that since nothing is truly owned, why do we invest so much energy into claiming these piles of bricks; and he responded that in our society, this is how we manage the issue of who lives and sleeps where, of personal space in a crowded country etc; and so rather than reject the concept of home ownership, we should own houses well and do it in a way that honours God rather than worships the house and the money invested in it.

In a similar way, having a monarch isn’t as such a truly awful idea, but when that monarch replaces God, and we invest all our hopes and dreams in that person, its a problem. Why? Partly because that monarch will inevitably fail, and partly because in looking to that person we are looking away from God.

Sometimes we need to stop, to take a moment and ask why we’re doing what we’re doing, and maybe we then carry on doing the same thing, but with a renewed understanding (yup, I’ve thought about it and I’m happy) or recognising its limits (this isn’t perfect, but for today it’s the best available option and tomorrow I’ll work on it). And maybe we change what we’re doing, or we at least recognise that we need to change. In an article I read today in the Guardian about the Ukraine crisis it appeared that some of the freedom fighters in a unit were terrified of their own leader- they knew they were on the verge of being ordered to do something wrong, but how to change? Very few of us find ourselves in the presence of a dangerous gunman ordering us about, but it still remains one of the hardest things in the world to change our behaviour- to stop what we know is wrong and to start to do something right.

And don’t think I’ve got this one sorted. I really haven’t. I’d love to, but I haven’t.

I’m all ears, I’d love to know how anyone manages it.

Prayer? sure, that helps… but its not enough. God’s Holy Spirit? that’ll help too… but it doesn’t overcome Andy’s stroppy spirit. A verbal slap and being told off? Nope, that’s never been very successful. And don’t even think about suggesting that guilt will do the trick…

So tell me what, if anything, works for you.

Pay attention… it’s time to make your ears tingle!

It’s a fairly unusual term- ‘I’m going to do something that will make the ears of everyone who hears it tingle’, and even stranger to me was the fact that it comes in a passage in the Bible which I’m really familiar with, and yet had not noticed before yesterday when I read again 1 Samuel chapters 1-3. Ok, in my defence it comes in verse 11 of chapter 3, so fairly far through the passage, but its a narrative I know well-

The main characters of Hannah and Elkanah, Eli, Phineas and Hophni are all present and correct, and then part way through the passage Samuel is born. Now this is one of the reasons that we chose the name Samuel for our son- it’s derived from the Hebrew for ‘God hears’, and like Hannah and Elkanah our Samuel was a sign to us of God’s hearing and listening. We also both love the character of Samuel in the Bible and his deep faith… and, to be honest, Samuel was as close to Samwise as we were going to agree on for a child’s name… Elrond and Frodo were right out of contention from the start.

The thing that really spoke to me from this passage, today, wasn’t just that Samuel was listening and heard the voice of God. That is of course true, and it is very cool. However, I was struck by how easily I had missed something in the passage, something which jumped out at me on this reading. Its very easy, when you’ve been a Christian for some time, to look at Bible references and think ‘I’ve read that before, and I can remember what it’s about’… as if there’s nothing further for us to learn. Its a bit like sitting down for dinner with your family, looking around the table and then saying ‘didn’t we do this last night/week/month?’ On the surface, yes, this is a repeat. But deeper down, time has passed, I’ve certainly been affected by whatever has happened in the intervening time, and ultimately, this is about relationship rather than simple process.  Eating round a table, as I’ve said before, is about more than the intake of calories. Reading the Bible isn’t just about turning the pages and looking at the words.

God speaks, and we hear… and he promises things that will make our ears tingle.

E100 day 12- dream on dreamer

So, anyone who was a lived through the 80’s or 90’s can’t help but have the tune to the Lloyd-Webber musical Joseph running through their minds when they read passages from Genesis 37 onwards.

Yesterday it was all about the first dreams and the technicoloured coat, and the really bad move that it is to put your dreams before your older brothers… just as a general principle you shouldn’t tell them you’re going to rule over them, especially if they outnumber you and you live in a society where sibling rivalry and untimely death aren’t far apart.

Today, the story has moved to Egypt (is it just me or does that place have a seriously bad rep in the beginning of the Bible?). Joseph has been sold as a slave and he’s working for Potiphar.

Now, two interesting thoughts here- firstly, God blessed the whole household because of Joseph. That’s pretty cool, eh? If we’re ever wondering about the bonus side-effects that might come along when we commit to following God and prioritise our relationship with him, here’s one possible one: everyone around you gets blessed. Joseph was still a slave (though in a fairly elevated position) so its not as though it was an immediate release for him, but by being faithful to God and faithful in his work, the things he was responsible for were blessed. Notice I’m not using words like ‘prospered’ or ‘succeeded’ because I think we automatically see those things leading to financial or material success… blessing is less tangible and also less immediately obvious. It might be a sense of warmth, welcome or peace rather than a new office, but which one will lead to a more motivated team and a greater level of support?

Secondly, Joseph turns down the lady of the house. Now she may have expected any slave of the house to be her property, she may even have been legally right to do so, but Joseph knew his principles and he stuck to them, in the face of temptation (Potiphar’s wife is always stunningly beautiful in your mind and in every picture… well done Joseph for resisting the sneaky but gorgeous bird… but what if she’d been 50yrs his senior, overweight and with stinky breath? Now it becomes a case of well done Joseph for thinking of a way in which you can talk your way out of the situation without insulting her). Unfortunately, either way, Mrs Potiphar isn’t happy, and so Joseph is thrown in jail for attempting to ‘make sport’ of her.

And in the midst of all this, he has only his dreams… that somehow his family will bow down to him. I reckon that Joseph would have been content to just get home, and to be the one bowing down. But maybe he still needed to learn something about grace and forgiveness, maybe he was still bitter (and it’d be hard to blame him for that).

But down in the prison, the same things are happening- Joseph is faithful, and things around him go well, and someone notices, and he gains responsibility. Interestingly, success comes to Joseph not when he dreams, but when he works. Eventually he is summoned to the court of Pharaoh, and there he interprets a dream, but wisely starts by saying ‘I can’t do this, only God can send dreams and only God can help me to understand them’- which is a measure of his wisdom… he’s experienced what happens if you just spout these ideas out, and now he’s learnt.

I’m just hoping I don’t have to be thrown in a pit, sold into slavery, transported to another country and then imprisoned in order to learn wisdom.

E100 day 10- and now, presenting… the same guy but with a limp and a different name

What’s in a name? I mean, really… what is in a name? Does it really define anything about someone? Some names have meaning because of their origin- usually traced back to the country that they originally came from.

Andrew apparently means strong, while Andy means balding and facetious… who’d have guessed? But more significantly, who decides? I was Andrew as a (really not very sporty or strong) child, and then became Andy before I became bald, and as for the facetious bit…

In the Bible, and Genesis chapter 32 is one example of this, people sometimes change their names after an encounter with God…

So Abram (exalted father) became Abraham (father of many), and now Jacob (he grasps or deceives) becomes Israel (he struggles with God)… but what is in a name?

I was watching the film ‘Life of Pi’ the other day, which has a great section about how the main character gets his name… he earns it and in doing so casts off the names that others have given him… it demonstrates something about him, rather than the things other people have put onto him.

When we give someone a name, we might put some thought into it, and have good intentions, but we don’t, and can’t know how that name will affect the person- so Jacob could have been intended as a gentle joke, or a warning (you were born grasping your twin brother’s heel, don’t always be grasping those in front of you), but it seems that it became a description of how he behaved. It wasn’t until this second encounter with God that he is truly changed- he grasps and grapples with his opponent, in the late night wrestle-fest, but neither has the upper hand, until God touches him on the hip, as if to say ‘you struggle and fight and do all you can in your own strength, and you refuse to give up, which is truly admirable, but you must know that my strength is beyond your understanding, so now be still’. And Jacob, who is now becoming Israel, lies there, with no clever words, no tricks- he knows that he is powerless. And when he is powerless, God blesses him.

I’m just hoping that God doesn’t have to dislocate my hip to get my attention…