I believe, help my unbelief

Last Sunday we continued our series of services where we’re exploring different aspects of what it means to worship and be part of a church- we also welcomed a lovely little girl into our church family at a baptism along with many of her family and friends who came to join in. The service contained probably more chaos and screaming than most, and at times felt close to the edge, but there was a lot of realistic honesty going on!

In the midst of it all, I was speaking about what it means to believe, based on the account in Mark’s Gospel of a father who seeks healing for his son, which you can find in Mark 9.17-24.  Here’s my script, but for what I actually said, you’ll need, as always, to listen to the podcast

Wouldn’t we all like to know for sure? About, everything… I’d like to know that my cooking will turn out tasty, I’d like to know that my gardening efforts will come to fruit- literally… I’d like to know that my kids will turn out alright, that my parents will stay well… I’d like to know. But we don’t. And yet, we cook food and eat it, we plant seed and water the soil, we parent, we let our own parents off the leash… (bag with cookery book, potato, photo of Sam, climbing shoes, battery, phone).

This week, we’re continuing our series of summer services exploring the different parts of our worship, and today we’re thinking about what it means to believe. Each week, in one way or another, we say ‘we believe’- some Sundays its in the words of a prayer called the Nicene Creed- written by Christians who met in Nicaea, in Turkey, almost 1700yrs ago; other weeks we use different prayers taken from the Bible, or we use a form of question and answer- the service leader asks a series of questions, and we reply ‘I believe and trust in him’…

In life we want to know what lies ahead, but actually we’re used to not knowing for sure- we’re used to living with a bit of uncertainty and a bit of faith… Every one of us, I guarantee you, has some faith. If you’ve sat down on a chair, driven in a car, switched on a light, cooked to a recipe or sent a text message, then you have faith. If you have ever flown in a plane, been a passenger on a train or a boat, then you’ve had faith in someone you have never met and probably never seen… Some of us take this further than others- jumping out of a perfectly good plane, diving off a bridge, walking off a cliff- trusting in someone else’s ability to pack a parachute, sort a bungee or arrange an abseil. With all of these things we are used to believing and trusting. And in each one of them we don’t just believe with our heads- knowing the facts, that someone else just did it fine, that it worked last time etc, we trust with our hearts, our feet- we do something. We don’t only abseil with our heads; we don’t only put one foot onto the train- we do it completely, or not at all. We’re at liberty to make that decision- the train, boat, plane will go without us, we don’t have to follow a recipe or sit down… but the result will depend on our decision.

In faith we find ourselves in the same situation. Do we believe and trust in the promises of God? Do we believe that God exists, that he sent his Son Jesus to solve the problems of our mess (which we call sin) and the things we do (the little things we do and the big things we see on the news), that Jesus took the blame for all those things, and that he has the power and authority to declare that we are free if we want to be. If you’ve ever been scared of something you’ll know this situation- part of your mind is saying one thing, another is saying the opposite- you want to listen to both. You might know which is right, but it’s hard to do it. Sometimes we have to be broken, at our wits end, before we’ll ask for help or make the decision- like the father in our Bible passage. Many of us know what it’s like to be in this sort of situation, worried sick but not sure what to do…

And Jesus speaks into this paralysis, telling the father to have faith- I believe, help me overcome my unbelief… Just as a coach helps us to achieve what we could not previously do by ourselves, or an instructor guides us through the seemingly impossible until we find ourselves parachuting, climbing or whatever, Jesus helps this father’s unbelief… and his son is healed. In a few weeks time we’re going to look particularly at prayer, both for the world and for each other, and we’ll be thinking then about how and why it may feel that our prayers aren’t always answered, but at this point I want to offer something I recently read- if we pray and have faith, we see prayers answered and some are healed… if we do not pray and have faith, we do not see prayers answered and no one is healed, so what should we do?

[It’s really helpful to be thinking about this today, as we welcome a new member into God’s family and welcome all her family and friends to be with us for her baptism- when an adult is baptised we celebrate with them that they have taken that step of faith, and have decided to respond to God’s love and His call on their lives by saying ‘yes, I believe’… For all those young children and babies who’re baptised here and in other churches, we celebrate the beginning of a journey- the first steps taken by a family as they say, ‘yes, this is the direction we’re heading in’… its not the destination but the start. Each of us who’ve been baptised need to keep on making that commitment each day to believe and have faith.]

For all of us ‘help my unbelief’ is still true… I can recall a time when I was climbing in Spain, a good height up a cliff, when I suddenly found myself stuck- for around 20 minutes. I couldn’t move. The fact that I’d already climbed 50ft up a cliff with no problem didn’t make any difference at that moment, that I’d been climbing all day, that I was on a climbing holiday and that I loved climbing… I was stuck. We have those times when we’re stuck. In our faith as well. And what do we do at those times? For me I had to listen to the right voices- the friend on the ground, the voice of my own experience, and not the ones that were telling what might go wrong. Ok, when you’re climbing and it goes wrong it’s painful, but in terms of faith, what is the worst that can happen? If we’re wrong and this is all there is to it, there’s no one going to be laughing at us!

The reality is quite simple- often we know the truth, and yet we find it hard to accept it and act on it. Just like I had to get over my fear and make that next step when climbing, so I came to a point where my faith in God outweighed the questions I had, and I said ‘yes, I believe’. No one can force us, we have to come to that place ourselves. And once we do, we find ourselves looking back and saying ‘was it really as easy as that?’ Coming to faith, making that step doesn’t smooth out the rest of the path- there may still be cliffs to climb, but it gives hope in the destination, companions on the way and the support of God when our strength fails us… I believe, help my unbelief.

believe everything happens for a reason i believe that there is no ...

Advertisements

Ready salted and shining like a star!

Yesterday we didn’t have a sermon in our main service… shock horror. Instead we figured one out ourselves- we had some crisps and breadsticks (as well as tortillas and rice cakes), candles, fairy lights and torches, a whole bunch of discussion and a reading from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus talks, yup, about salt and light…

Image result for salt and light

It was an amazing time, led by a wonderful woman of God, who put an immense amount of thought, prayer and effort into the service along with her team (and I know this because I watched her plan it during the previous two weeks). I may be biased, but I thought my wife rocked- there aren’t many occasions when joining in the prayer of confession and hearing the words of forgiveness brings me to tears, but it did yesterday.

So, if that’s what happened at the main shebang, what am I going to post? Well, fortunately we have the early morning service, and I got to share some thoughts with the folks there… so here they are, for once, something similar to what I said…

I came across an online discussion last week- someone had found something in their grandmother’s cupboard, in an unlabelled jar, which looked like salt… problem was that it didn’t really taste like salt and when used to make sauerkraut it ended up producing mouldykraut…

Salt is for preservation- for salting… it has purpose. It wasn’t just a bit of flavouring as we often use it today. If you tried to use some salt and it wasn’t salty, it was useless. Light is for seeing in the dark- to give light to people, so they can see, and move, and live without injuring themselves and others…

Jesus here says its ok for others to know about our deeds- but is very clear that the outcome of that should be that God is praised… when we do something that is good, we risk two traps- one is that we take any praise for ourselves- elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel there is a very clear judgment on this- that’s all the reward you’ll get… but there’s also the tendency towards dismissiveness, or self-deprecation- it was nothing, anybody would do the same… actually, not everybody would, and it was something… but if you know you’ve given to the poor, fed the hungry, housed the homeless, welcomed the stranger, stood up against injustice or healed the sick because Jesus has called you to follow him- because you are a disciple of Christ, then acknowledge it. When I was involved a number of years ago in a free café over at the Pilton Festival, the biggest problem we had were those serving explaining why it was free- those coming expected to pay, and we were often quite used to charging… and so it was quite something to say ‘actually this is free- it’s a gift, we’re giving this away as an act of compassion and generosity…’ in the end we made napkins with the text we wanted to say printed on them- the team could all give out a napkin and say ‘read what it says on there’… ‘This cake is a small expression of love, it was made and given for you by members of the local churches, as a tiny way of showing God’s love for you. If you’d like to know more, speak to one of the team’. In the first instance we were giving away cake- and not to those who were starving. However it was more than that.

When we run Mini music, Cake Club, the Youth Club, when we go to visit Park Lane Nursing home or to the schools, or any other outreach event, the purpose is always twofold- to respond to a need, but to show God’s love as we do so. When we have special collections for overseas or UK charities or give a portion of our annual giving, we do it to help, but also to show God’s love as we do so. Churches aren’t just money funnels or finance managing groups, just as much as they aren’t just cafés or nurseries, however the Church has been supporting those in financial need, those who’re hungry, those who need our practical help long before we ever started writing down our prayers and forms of worship. This is the tradition of the church, this is the fulfilment of the law of Moses- this is what it looks like to love our neighbour as ourselves.

As disciples we do this in our individual lives, and as the church we do it on a larger scale, and so on…

We encourage one another, we strengthen each others voices, we sharpen one another…

We spent some time praying that we’d be able to do this more in our lives, and so I guess that’d be my prayer for you too this week.

Earthquakes, dynamite and unwanted examples

I wrote my talk for the weekend on Friday, before hearing about the news of the earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador… the comments about power without focus and control seem ever more pertinent, but its not as if I wanted an example to point to, and I certainly hope it didn’t come across that way to folks yesterday when I spoke.  I’m not pretending to have a solution to the damage and devastation caused by the impact of geological forces on the human and animal species that exist on the surface- If there were no earthquakes the pressure within the core of the earth would build up to eventually cause a planet destroying explosion… they’re like the ‘psst’ of steam from a pressure cooker, and the molten core of the earth is a key part of what makes our planet habitable to life as we know it… but before this turns too much into a geography post (and one that is probably incorrect on a number of points), here’s the thing-

Before you read the rest of the post, please pause for a moment and give time in your thoughts for the communities in Japan and Ecuador where lives have been lost, homes destroyed and so much more, and remember places around the world that are still recovering from natural disasters that have struck in recent years- Nepal, Haiti, Japan (again) and many others. If you’re a praying person, please pray, if not, then maybe think about what you can do to help alleviate the suffering there.

Thanks.

Ok, on with the post- this was what I said yesterday morning about Peter, the disciple… its based on Acts chapter 9, but with a bit of a brief history of Peter’s life as described within the Bible. And if you want to hear the full version, its on the church website here.

Power needs to be harnessed to be effective. Or to put it another way, storms only cause damage when they hit something. A Stick of dynamite explodes- but put it into a small hole and it can bring down a cliff. Peter was always a man of greatness- Jesus knew that from the start, but he wasn’t harnessed- he wasn’t embedded and so his recognition that Jesus was the Christ is followed by his failure to understand his mission, his trust in Jesus that enabled him to get out of the boat is followed by doubts that caused him to sink, his promise to follow Christ anywhere led to his denial of even knowing him. Until… At the very end of John’s gospel Jesus speaks again with Peter- he asks him ‘Do you love me?’ 3 times- to bring healing, and he instructs him ‘feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep’- Jesus, who has called himself the good shepherd who will lay down his life for the lives of his flock gives Peter that instruction. And Peter is restored to his seat among the disciples- He’s the one who leads their meetings in the weeks after Easter, and then on the day of Pentecost he is the one who naturally stands and speaks to the crowd… As you read through the book of Acts you’ll see him disappear largely from view as Paul and his mission to the gentiles grows in significance, but Peter has his own mission from the very start- to the Jews. A comparison for us today would be to say that Paul would, if he arrived in Barnstaple, go to the shops and the rugby club and speak with anyone he found there; while Peter would come to the churches and speak to us- calling us to repent, to return again to the faith of our fathers, to know in our hearts and live out in our lives that faith with acts of compassion, love and power, and then tell us to go out to the shops and the rugby clubs, and prepare our churches for the arrival of the folks that we met there… And the miracles that we see performed by Peter demonstrate that- when he heals a crippled man, both in Acts 3 and 9, just before the passage we heard he’s travelling to worship and teach in the Jewish communities of Lydda and Joppa. Peter’s words and actions have power not because of him, but because he has found the place where he fits- Climbing kit- a FRIEND, fits into varying sizes of cracks on a cliff, different ones for different places- when it fits you can depend on it… it is in the right place. When we are in the right place with God his power at work in us is so much greater.

How did Paul get into that place? By messing up- by taking risks, by recognising his failures and by trying again. By seeking God humbly- in prayer, in worship, by being open to something new from God. By following the example of Jesus- Jesus healed, he healed, Jesus taught, he taught, Jesus wasn’t afraid, Paul wasn’t afraid.

We read a passage like todays and think- did it happen? We might think ‘it certainly couldn’t happen’ BUT… we don’t know. We don’t know because we aren’t living the life of faith that Peter lived- we may be scared to, we may not want to, but we’re not living like he and the early Christians did- Peter had been threatened with death, had seen friends die, had been ordered to stop speaking in the name of Jesus and yet he continued. He’d left all he had and knew… because he believed with all that he was. His faith transformed his life and the lives of those around him. If we want to see lives transformed we have to let our own be transformed by God first… we have to let our church be transformed by God…  We’ve seen and we are seeing some fruits of that, but we’re stuck, just as Peter was, we’ve our own preferences and experiences and traditions and ideas… but ultimately God says ‘do you love me? And if the answer is yes, then we’re called to trust him, to have faith. That means giving sacrificially, that means praying for and with people, that means knowing that God is with us everywhere and living our calling out in the place where we work, on our commute, at the school gate and as neighbours etc, it means inviting people to join us on this journey of faith… But we need to have confidence in our own faith first…maybe we need to go on the alpha or the start course or join a home group before we can invite a friend to come with us… but we can already be encouraged by what we see God doing around us. Peter saw healings and heard his friends speak of what they’d seen God do, and that encouraged him, and his faith, his actions- God’s power at work through him, encouraged others and helped them to come to faith and grow in faith. I’ve not yet seen God bring a dead woman back to life, but I’ve seen enough that I wouldn’t rule it out. I’ve also sat with those approaching death, and with those who’ve just lost loved ones, and wondered why not this time… especially when the ending of a life happens in tragic circumstances or at an early age. I don’t really know why, but I know that I trust in God, and that Jesus wasn’t afraid of death. I pray for healing and restoration, and I pray for a peaceful end, and I know that God hears both those prayers, and I ultimately pray them both in His name- your will be done. If God brings glory to his name by healing someone, or does not, it not my decision or my responsibility. But if I never risk enough to even ask, I’ll never see it, and I’ll never be living the life that I could live.

In our lives, if we take God at his word and begin to live as if his word is true, then we will begin to take the same first steps as Peter… we’ll probably mess up and need to seek forgiveness from God and each other… but we’ll be beginning to live in faith- in our schools, our homes, our workplaces and everywhere.

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes… they all have a part to play

Yesterday we were thinking about two of my favourite passages of the Bible- the first comes from Luke’s gospel, and is where Jesus stands up and speaks about how some words of Isaiah (good news for the poor, feeding the hungry, freedom for the oppressed, light in darkness and the time of God’s favour) are about to come true today… love that passage (its Luke 4.14-21 if you want to look)… he then spends the next two years doing that, and during that time he also teaches, encourages and enables his disciples to do the same.

The second passage we looked at came from chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Turkish church in Ephesus- now a ruined city just inland from Kusadasi, across the water from Samos and nearby to several refugee camps. Paul was notorious for rejecting the claims of Jesus and his followers and trying to destroy the early church- today is one of those odd days in the church calendar where its not a saints day but a day when we remember Paul’s conversion- his encounter on the road with Jesus, in a way that was spiritual rather than material (no one else saw it) but real rather than conceptual (it totally changed the rest of his life)- the road to Damascus experience that any others are referring to.

We used this prayer to help us think about how we are each able to be part of the things that Jesus was talking about:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.                                                             (St Teresa of Avila)

When God calls us he expects us to respond by more than simply worship or prayer… we show our love by our action, but not busyness…

Paul expected the same, but also that each person would find their own place- the Body of Christ from Romans, the different ministries in Ephesians… but the list at the start of Ephesians 4 is a general calling- to be humble and gentle, to be patient, to work to keep unity… for there is one hope- that which brings healing, light, freedom etc… some basic things for all people who follow Jesus, who’re Christians…

And then in verses 11-12 the ministries Paul lists weren’t exclusively for the church in Ephesus or the early church, nor are they exclusively for us- in every place, at every time… all are essential to the life of the church… we’re not all called to be professionals, to have the ‘vocational calling’ to them, but all can, as grace has been given to us, be one or more of these in the places where we are… Know what we are (we were thinking about how feet aren’t much good for carrying things etc) and play our part, each of us…

these five ministries can be expanded upon massively, but just to give a pointer:

Apostles- those who are sent to new places, whether those be across the Roman Empire or up to the allotment…

Prophets- those who see with the eyes of God, and call us to come closer to God… they challenge the world and the church to live up to the ideals, the manifesto of the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed.

Evangelists- those who want to see people come to a saving knowledge of God’s love, which may seem obvious to some but is scary stuff to others- its ok to recognise that some of us are called and gifted in that

Pastors- those who care for the sick, the lonely, the orphans, widows, the poor and the homeless…

Teachers- those who encourage and educate those who are new to faith…

If you look at the order of them, we need them in that order- to go to a place where the Gospel is needed, to highlight the gap between life as it is seen and as it might be under God, to provide opportunity for a response to that- for people to come to God, to care for people’s needs as they do that and then to teach them how to live as followers of Christ themselves… when we find ourselves stuck and aren’t preparing, or being prepared for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up, we need to go back up the list- what aren’t we doing… where is the blockage… until we’re able once again to- be good news to the poor, bring light to the dark places, heal the sick, free the oppressed and proclaim God’s love for the world.

New wine

Just the briefest of first thoughts… an agricultural showground,  10000 people, a lot of tents, and God. And in the midst of it all, my back has been misbehaving again. However, the first teaching seminar was on stillness in a busy world, and if there’s one thing minor pain does, it makes you slow down. Slow down and see things, slow down and appreciate distance and perspective. I’m not turning into a masochist,  and I’m really glad my back is healing, but in the meantime its been teaching me a thing or two. Its just a shame I’m such a poor student.

Prayer Workshops 3- praying with others

We were joined for the evening by my good friend Jim Ware from the North Devon House of Prayer, and he facilitated our time together. I’ve typed up his outline notes below… read, enjoy, use, and of course pray.

Prayer workshops summer 2014- session 3: How and Why do I pray with others?

Facilitated by Jim Ware, of NDHOP, hosted by Andy Dodwell

Working through some principles, and then putting them into practice…

1-      Who are we talking to? Most of us will be more comfortable praying to God as one of Father, Son or Holy Spirit- this is possibly linked to whether we have had stronger positive relationships with our father, mother or siblings. Whichever it is, we want to recognise and work with those strengths, whilst also acknowledging that we can all talk to all 3 persons of the Trinity.

2-      The Bible has a place in our prayer life, as inspiration, a guide, and also a reference point for things we think are answered prayer- God won’t contradict his Word. If we’re ever wondering where to start in a prayer time with others, the Lord’s Prayer is a comprehensive prayer that every Christian can share.

3-      What if I don’t agree with what’s been/being prayed? If its something that I’m not comfortable with, or is obviously off the page? Simple- at that point, just don’t ‘Amen’ it. Leave any further discussion or response, of whatever sort, to a later time and to those who’ve authority to do that.

4-      God’s creative word and existing commands- he’s already told us to heal the sick, raise the dead, cast our demons and make disciples… do we continue to ask for direction when its already been given?

5-      Worship and prayer- what is the difference? How do the two flow into each other and work together… Daniel 9 gives an example of one leading to the other.

6-      Personal stuff- where am I coming from in my prayers; regional stuff- what is going on in this area? Getting straight on these things, whether its about confession or praying specifically into things that need restoring or challenging.

7-      Our place of authority- Ephesians 2.6 and Psalm 91 as useful Scripture for this.

8-      Our own hearts vs God’s heart. Don’t be proud, but be humble. God’s love is prodigious and for the prodigals- don’t stop it.

9-      Quenching the spirit, and operating from God’s presence- don’t let our own spirit rule, but God’s

10-   Practical points for small group prayer:

  1. Setting the scene- are people feeling free and safe?
  2. The destination- we’re entering into God’s presence to bring things before him and to listen to him
  3. How are we going to get there?- tell people what the overall structure of the time will look like
  4. Praying the Scriptures- using verses from the Bible to start our prayer time and inspire our prayers
  5. Waiting on God- silence is not to be feared
  6. Encourage one another- if someone prays out loud for the first time or shares something they feel God has given them.

11-   Hearing from God- make sure you’re asking:

Jesus let me not be deceived

Jesus what do you think about this?

Jesus what do you think about me?

This isn’t what I said, and its not even what I meant to say

Yesterday morning I spoke at 3 services- an 8am service with just a few of us, a 9.30 service with about 50 adults (fortunately those two services had the same theme), and then at an 11am carol service… so what to put on the blog today?

Well, it would help if I’d actually written out enough of my talks, or if the bits that I did write made some kind of sense. It might help anyway, and probably wouldn’t hurt.

It probably doesn’t help that the two things I got most animated about- one being some stuff around ‘I am saved, I’m being saved and I will be saved’, and the other some thoughts inspired by my colleague’s blog here (no, not the Douglas Adams bit, I’m afraid to say). Anyway, I was speaking about Isaiah 35 for the first two services- and you can read my initial thoughts, but not what I said on that below.

For the carol service i was assisted by 3 toy sheep and a story that originated on the barnabas website… with a few variations and random bits here and there…

Isaiah 35…

At this point in Isaiah a shift happens. It marks the end of an extended message of God’s judgment on the nations- on those who reject him. Instead, we begin to read of hope, and a future joy, and of promises that will come to be- instead of devastation, the wilderness will be transformed into a place of life.  The desert is compared to Lebanon, Carmel and Sharon- places known for the plantlife. I guess an equivalent for us might be to compare it to a rainforest.  The important thing is that the sense of a promise, that has been held at a distance in some of the earlier parts of Isaiah, is now coming closer, and is more identifiable… just as in our own gardens, we don’t generally plant bulbs haphazardly and at any old time, but when we know where we want them to grow…

A seed growing to life has another important idea contained within it- that of growth… and not just in size.  There are seeds that are beautiful, but for the most part they’re a functional thing, but as they germinate and grow a plant unfolds and grows to something much bigger and much more beautiful, something that is truly able to live out its purpose.  So the promise of Isaiah- spoken to the fearful, the weak, the tired is one of hope and transformation.  They will enter the city of God singing with joy, filled with gladness- everlasting joy… When we worship, when we find ourselves close to God whether through prayer, singing, serving others or in other ways, we are experiencing at best, a glimpse of the future promise…

There is in this passage much that evokes John the Baptist- the man who stood in the desert and called out ‘Prepare the way for the Lord!’, calling people to repentance and a fresh commitment to follow God.  He brought into focus the teaching of those who’d gone before him, drawing their attention and saying that the promises they’d been aware of were about to be fulfilled, by one who would open the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf, who’d enable the lame to walk and leap and put words into the mouths of the mute.

The word redeem is used to capture all of this. It’s a word we often underappreciate, with our coupons and vouchers that need redeeming, but it’s a really important word- it means to set free, originally to buy back (from slavery).

Captives need redeeming. Prisoners and slaves need redeeming.  We don’t need redeeming, do we?

Not unless we’re slaves or prisoners. Isaiah is, of course, talking firstly to his countrymen who’re living in actual slavery- in exile, but he’s also talking about spiritual slavery- needing to be set free spiritually.

What might that mean? We use the phrase ‘slave to sin’ often enough, but rarely do we think about how that works in reality. To put it another way- what things rule our lives? We might joke that its our children, or our boss, but somewhere there’re things like fear that have a powerful influence on us… self-image might be another one. And the things that seem insignificant but actually dominate our thinking and use of time- it doesn’t have to be a major addiction to have control over us… and the promise of God is to set us free from those things- we won’t suddenly be free from debt or bills, but they’ll stop controlling us, if we choose to turn our attention to God.

The promise of Isaiah is that with the messiah- the chosen one, the whole world will look different. The opportunity for us is to have that difference in our lives…

I felt, and feel, that this idea of being enslaved by small things is really important- we don’t notice them, or deny their power, but just as Gulliver was trapped by the Liliputians, many small things can hold us immobile.

Mandela- a human saint or a rebel with a cause? Either way, my hero.

Last night i heard the news that Nelson Mandela, one of my lifelong heroes, had died. I just want to write some of my own thoughts and responses.

He’d been ill for some time, his health hasn’t been good for a number of years, and he was 95- he’d lived twice the life expectancy of the rural poor in South Africa… so it came as no surprise, really, to hear the news of his death.

But how do we remember him? How do we remember a man who steered a country through one of the greatest challenges any nation can face? How do we remember a man who was sentenced to life imprisonment for what, in any nation, would be described as acts of terrorism?

Fergal Keane, in this report gives a good, balanced account of some part of Mandela’s legacy- he made promises that he could not keep, but he brought the country away from apartheid without civil war, he failed to recognise the threat of HIV/AIDS for a long time, but he established democratic freedom for people of all racial backgrounds…

When i used to sing ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ as a schoolboy in middle England, i knew little of what or who i was singing about- just that we couldn’t eat South African oranges and there weren’t South African sports teams.  Around the same time I loved the anarchic rebellion of the Blues Brothers, and wanted to live my life like James Dean in ‘Rebel without a cause’… in my teenage middle class way there was some kind of rebellion going on, but against who or what, I couldn’t say.

English: The prison cell where Nelson Mandela ...
English: The prison cell where Nelson Mandela was once imprisoned. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Years later i stood in the doorway of his cell on Robben Island, and i still knew little of the reality of the man, or of his country.  I travelled a bit, and saw things, and knew how the country had begun to change, and heard about the hopes and fears of my (white) family in the new reality.

The thing is, what i do know is that he wasn’t perfect. That he made mistakes, and errors of judgement. But his successes outweighed his failures and his persistence was rewarded.  He found a cause worth everything, and he put everything into it.

None of that makes him a saint, and i’m not putting him up for beatification, but in some ways it makes Nelson Mandela an even greater human being- with warts and all.

It would be easy to make comparisons between Nelson Mandela’s love of his country, his acknowledgement of the importance and power of grace, and the necessity for healing of community and individual relationships, and the narrative of Christianity that we see played out in the Bible. But i don’t think Nelson Mandela attempted to live his life so that I could have a cheap sermon illustration, so i’ll simply say that all the things we admire in Nelson Mandela, we see writ large in the life of Jesus.

If we admire and respect the one, what does that have to say about our attitude to the other?

Days 88 & 89- why be down when you could be up?

So, I’ve been continuing to look at the first few chapters of Revelation- the letters to the churches, and I’ve been really intrigued by the different things that Jesus says to them, but also about the similarities between them, and to our own culture…

first up- (though this could be lastly, as you’ll see)… in every one of them, there’s a comment along the lines of ‘to those who listen to God’s Spirit, this cool thing will happen’. Which seems to be saying that we really ought to spend some time listening to God, and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide our thinking and behaviour rather than be bound by our culture or church tradition. It reminds me of a comment I heard earlier this year- Churches and Christians shouldn’t be spending time attempting to be relevant to culture, because culture is always changing and so we’ll be constantly trying to catch up, instead we should focus on creating culture that challenges people to transform their lives into a new shape.

secondly- it seems as though there’s a distinction between the ‘looking good but without substance’ churches (I think Ephesus and Sardis have this tag- go read Revelation 2 and 3 for yourself and let me know what you think), and the ‘bit shabby and beaten up round the edges but close to God’ churches (which fits Philadephia and Smyrna, from my reading). Its always tempting to look good, and it does have a part to play- when I’m looking for a restaurant, or a car, or even just a seat, I’ll be looking for some visual cues; but not at the expense of deeper quality… if the welcome to a restaurant is great but the food is rubbish, I’m probably even more disappointed (the only plus point is that if the staff are friendly I may at least feel able to let them know how bad the food is!).  The challenge is to stay close to God, no matter what.

English: This is the controls on a dover elevator
English: This is the controls on a dover elevator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thirdly, which is where the post title comes in- i read these passages and thought about how they could transfer across to my life, and my church. And it would have been quite easy to list the faults etc. But thats not what Jesus does with us, and so thats not how I understand these letters- they weren’t written to make groups of people feel bad while others feel great, but to challenge and encourage all of them. We can read passages like this one, and feel beaten up by the words, or we can read them and feel lifted up, taken somewhere we can’t go on our own, given the chance to see something wonderful and told ‘go for it, this is what you’re called to be’.

We’re meant to be a microcosm of the Kingdom of God- a people and a place that demonstrate the potential and the reality of grace, healing, forgiveness, a family where we’re all children of God- all that kind of stuff.  So this week I’m resolved to try and be part of the church we’re meant to be, rather than stuck in a place I’m trying to get away from.

God loves my church, maybe I could learn something from Him.

Day 82- Don’t panic… we’re just changing a few things…

Reading the last chapter of Mark’s Gospel reminds me of the ending of all the books that I’ve read which are part 1 of a trilogy… they leave you questioning and wondering whats going to happen next. Of maybe thats what it was like for the original readers of Dicken’s novels when they were serialised. Anyway, its that sort of thing- you get to verse 8, which some think is the final line in the original, and the women haven’t met Jesus, they haven’t told anyone- they’ve just seen an empty tomb and been given the message ‘don’t be alarmed’. Nothing to see here, especially as the man you’ve come to embalm isn’t dead anymore.

Or if you read the rest of the chapter, its like a speed epilogue that wraps up things in doublequick time- Jesus was seen here, he met these people, he did that… and then draws to a close. Mark’s version has similarities but is also significantly different from the other Gospels.

The most important bit, though, is that Jesus still appeared to people, and still sent out his followers into the world…

Oh, and of course, the rules have changed now- dead blokes not staying dead, the sick being healed, women being given positions of authority, the outcasts being welcomed home.

Welcome to the new reality. Now its time to live there.