Life to the full- woop woop!

Last weekend was an odd one… Wonderful wife plus two other stars were taking the main service and my boss was coming to preach at later service… so I had the day off? Not quite, as we still had an early morning service, there was a worship group to play in (yay, got to play bass in church!), and still needed to lead worship… so a light morning’s work that lasted 6hrs, but definitely no complaints- a good day was had by all.

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The passage we were thinking about was from John’s Gospel, chapter 10, which contains one of my favourite verses- ‘I have come that you may have life to the full’- verse 10. I love it, its both challenging and inspirational… Hope you don’t mind sentimental cheesy pic of wonderful wife out on a walk later in the week- living life to the full.

Here’s what I said at our 8am service…

 Jesus has just healed a blind man, the religious authorities have been called to investigate and have ended up throwing the man out of the synagogue for being cheeky, Jesus then finds the man who recognises him not only as a prophet of God but accepts him as the saviour… a blind, ill-educated man gets in a flash what the ‘proper’ folk have been waiting for and can’t see right under their noses. Who is really blind here? He goes on, in the passage we heard, to talk about the importance of the answer we give to ‘who is Jesus?’ or ‘what authority does Jesus have?’… The idea of sheep knowing their master’s voice sounds at once alien and attractive to us- it’s a nice image but not one we know from our own experience. We might remember the record shop HMV with its iconic picture of the dog listening attentively to ‘his master’s voice’… we might recall how a child can be calmed by a word from a parent when no one else will do… but we need to know the cultural resonance that the image of a shepherd had for Jesus’ listeners- they’d been shepherds since, well, forever- Abraham was a shepherd, Jacob and his sons were shepherds when they went to Egypt, Moses was a shepherd, David was a shepherd, and throughout the Psalms we read of God as a shepherd…and on the night of Jesus’ birth shepherds were on the hills- the role of a shepherd, while maybe no longer such a respectable job, was still significant.

When Jesus says, there are those who enter by the gate and those who climb in another way it’s clear he is saying that there are some who should not be followed, and some who should be- the sheep know the difference. There’s a relationship here- the sheep know their shepherd by voice and the shepherd knows their sheep… the shepherd is thinking of them- again, a different context for us where sheep are primarily farmed for meat, historically their milk (and cheese) and wool would have been more important- you grew the flock to fill the land… a context, a way of life that is less centred around short term profit and more about longer term care… The image is of a leader who cares, who puts themselves out- what we might call a servant leader… this is who Jesus is… his authority doesn’t come from the volume of his voice, but from how he speaks… a shepherd who’s flock know him and trust him- as Jesus disciples followed him they came to trust him more and more- as we live our lives as Christians today we find there are times when it’s easy to trust, and times when it’s hard, times when we forget someone is guiding us, and times when we cling to him…

In life there are many things that we might say we follow- a football team, a hobby, a band, an artist, a political party… at various points in our life we’ve probably each done so- but there is one similarity that carries across all of those- although you can see them, and although following them has its rewards- I remember going to obscure gigs and seeing my heroes close up, those things that we enjoy to not love us the way we love them- the way that Jesus loves us. They do not know us- despite the clever algorithms and cookies on websites they don’t know us, they do not have that self-giving love that Christ spoke of and demonstrated throughout his life and in his death. He is in this, both the shepherd and the gate- the one calling us to follow, and the means by which we are able to cross over- he is our personal saviour and Lord AND the saviour of all creation who stands at the right hand of the Father.

For us, we’re called to be sheep- to follow our Lord where he leads us, and we’re called to be sheep that somehow look like the shepherd- you know the way that dogs and their owners have a likeness? Just as Jesus came and lived among us so we’re to be like him to those we meet… not trying to replace him, but pointing others towards him by our words and our actions- by our prayers and our work amongst those in need.

And the outcome of all of this? Not a life lived in a holy tower or a ghetto, but life lived to the full- including the things we love- those hobbies, that desire to see the world changed, that love of the outdoors and those people we care for… but a life that isn’t limited or constrained by them- a life with a perspective that reaches to eternity and includes the whole world as our neighbourhood.

So, wherever you find yourself, live life to the max- not in splendid isolation from the rigours of the world, not blindly denying the truth of what is around you or missing out on the beauty of the world for fear of getting bruised along the way, and do what you can to help others live more fully.

Cheers.

 

Standing in for Jesus and why its important to understand where your cup of tea comes from

So, for the next few weeks in our services we’re looking at the ideas raised by Karl Martin in his extremely good book ‘Stand’- one of the most helpful and challenging reads I’ve had in a while… and somehow or other my opening sermon ended up with more than a nod to Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’… It made sense to me at the time, and at least a couple of people connected with the idea…

Anyway, here you are- apologies that this is something more of a set of notes than a full script, but hopefully you’ll get the gist. As always, you can listen here or else read the text I was preaching from here

In the radio series, and later the book, the TV series and the film) Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy the main character is, at one point, trying to get an alien computerised kitchen to make him a cup of tea… after each of his attempts to describe tea it serves him a cup of lukewarm pale beige liquid that is not unpleasant, but is not tea- the machine just doesn’t understand what tea is, and so it can’t make tea… If our faith means what we say it does- that it really means it in the same way that when someone says they’d like a cup of tea- they mean they’d like a cup of tea rather than a lukewarm cup of something… and so we, as we live our lives, need to know what our faith really means… Because it seems that for many Christians we’ve lost something- or maybe we’ve never had it… And so, for the next few weeks (from now until the end of August), we’re going to be looking at the Christian life afresh, to encourage ourselves to take hold of it anew and wrestle with some of the questions our faith poses to life today… and we’re starting that today by looking, where else, but at Jesus. Who he was, and what he did and said. And this may seem obvious, but I’ll say it anyway- we’re doing this because Jesus is supposed to grow in us- we’re meant to be transformed to be more like him… so we’re doing ourselves a favour if we work out what that looks like… Through this time, in the next few weeks, why don’t you commit to reading one of the Gospels (you’ve probably read them all before, but once again- this time with feeling!)- you can choose your favourite, you can choose to venture into the depths of John, stay short with Mark, reach the minorities with Luke or explore the history with Matthew, but whichever one you choose, as you read it, think to yourself ‘that, there, that is who I am supposed to be’…and pray that God would help to do that…

And so, the Beatitudes… In Matthew’s Gospel this is the manifesto of Jesus… at the start of the collection of teachings that we call the sermon on the mount, this is what Jesus presents as what it looks like to follow him- to be blessed; if we want to be more like Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel this is where we start…

The poor in spirit… not those who’re convinced they have everything… in the me me me world those who’re following Jesus aren’t shouting the same things… instead of boasting about ourselves we’re relying fully on God- for our salvation, our hope, our purpose…

Those who mourn… When I meet families who’re grieving, every family is different, but they are all struggling to hold it together in the face of something that has gone wrong in their world- Jesus calls us to weep with them, and also to weep over all that is wrong in the world- and then to act. To feed the hungry and house the homeless; not to berate them for their foolish choices or consider whether they are deserving…

The meek… will inherit the earth… Jesus turns everything upside down: those who wouldn’t ask for the world on a plate are the one’s who’ll receive it- it’s not about what you can claim, but about what you’re given, and we know that often those who’re most deserving of trust and responsibility are those who do not seek it out. Being meek, by the by, is not to be confused with being a doormat- Jesus never said that… this is the same Jesus who stilled a storm with a word, drove the moneylenders from the Temple and silenced the teachers of the law and all the Pharisees… being meek is not being weak, its just not being showy.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… If you want something enough, you’ll work for it- you’ll hunger and thirst for it… if its not worth that much to you, you just won’t… Jesus asks the question- how much is this worth to you? If you want it, it will be yours.

The merciful… God is love, and God’s love for us is shown in mercy- because we don’t deserve it. As we show mercy to others, we show them the love of God… we are being like Jesus, and will be gradually made more like Jesus. When we show mercy, this is an outworking of putting others first, a demonstration of both meekness and reliance on God, because it often means saying ‘I will trust God for this, rather than my own sense of justice’. This lies at the heart of our own salvation, it lies at the heart of who Jesus is and what he did, and why… we need to get this into our hearts-

The pure in heart… Purity. Holiness. Devotion. Putting God first and then looking at life through that lens… time, money, interests etc… not letting the shiny things and the noise of the world be at the centre of our lives.

The peacemakers… not the enforcers of tolerance or the protectors of different opinions, but those who do the long and painful work of making peace- that means listening to all sides, recognising and challenging truth and lies in ourselves and others… etc

Those who are persecuted for righteousness… There are those who won’t like this stuff- they’ll feel challenged by it… whenever someone gets focussed on God, there are those who feel threatened because it makes the rest of us look bad, and we feel a little guilty, so we try to dissuade them, to patronise them (probably without realising it), to stop them… because when we stand next to someone who is becoming more like Jesus, even though that’s exactly what we say we want, it can unnerve us… but if we choose to live as if these things are actually true- the promises and the challenges… that’s when we’ll find out just how true they can be.

These things are all directions- intentions as much as they are anything else- because of God’s mercy we don’t have to be all of them at once, or immediately…

 

What has God ever done for us?

So I’m not blogging about the referendum- I’m not blogging about how you should vote, about how I’m voting. I’m not writing about what the EU has or hasn’t done for us. I’ve voted, and I’ve talked with people about voting. And to be honest, I’m scared. I’m scared about what the debate has shown us about ourselves, about where we go from here and how we’ll journey. I genuinely don’t know whether I’m more scared about a victory for Leave or Remain, because I don’t think either will get the 65%+ that they need to claim a substantive platform to go forward (that is my made up number, by the way…). Anyway, this isn’t a post about the referendum, so I’ll shut up now…

Instead, this, from last Sunday, with credit to Karl Martin for getting me thinking about sonship and for the  five A’s of a father…

We were reflecting on a passage from Galatians chapter 3 and Luke chapter 7, and here’s what I said (also available for audio here)

What has God done for us? Whilst not wanting to go into Monty Python territory, it’s a question that is worth asking, and is one that we need consider. What response can we give, what response will we accept as being true? Its all very well to say ‘He’s done everything for us’, but what does that mean? Whether we believe in 7 day creation or God as the purposeful hand behind the Big Bang, Christians have always upheld the belief that all of creation is, because of God… and so while we might blame him for suffering we also have him to thank for beauty and joy. But if you’ve only ever lived in a beautiful place, in an orderly society, its hard to recognise and appreciate what upholds those things you value. ‘He gave us freedom- salvation from our own sins and life…’ But do we recognise that we’re free? Do we know what it means and are we aware of what captivity looks like… we can, maybe identify with some of the things that keep people captive- addictions and ways of behaving, but we find it harder to see those things in our own lives- the beam and the speck of dust.  Ask yourself this- what would stop me calling myself a Christian? What gets in the way of me praying/coming to church/sharing my faith? For some of those questions, for some of us there may be good, valid reasons, but for many of us the answers may include ‘fear, habits, hobbies, disagreement about how we worship or a particular doctrine’… we are all very capable of locking ourselves up, of chaining ourselves to things that mean we cannot come close to God, that we cannot appreciate what he’s done for us. Before Jesus came, proclaiming freedom, and died on the cross to pay the price for sin, the people of God were limited- were held by the law, those commands of God which had been developed and grown into something overwhelming but that still pointed towards the Messiah- to Christ… and he gave us freedom. And he broadened the boundaries of God’s people- there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female, you are all one in Christ… all are Abraham’s seed- heirs of the promise.

What does this mean then? The promise of God to Abraham was that he would be blessed by God, and that his people- his heirs would be as a nation a blessing to the world. And so all who call themselves Christians are included in this promise. The origins of Islam lie in the story of Abraham, that Abraham’s older son Ishmael is understood as being the forefather of those people… but in the freedom that Christ brings its possible for the children of the one to become heirs of the promise made to the other. The gentiles- those who were not of the people of Israel, could also come within the promise, could be called heirs… could be called Sons of God through faith in Jesus. We can change our family, and become part of God’s family.

He is our Father, and we are his Sons. For a first century Jew to hear that God is Father would be mindblowing- God is Lord God almighty, mighty to save, creator and sustainer, Lord of hosts… God is ‘Father’?

Father- trustworthy, strong, present. Not any of those other things that we may carry in our hearts from our own earthly fathers- not absent, authoritative, ambitious, abusive or ambivalent… he’s not just father… he’s Abba- daddy. He loves us, he’s with us, he holds us when we cry, he stands waiting for us to turn up and when we do he doesn’t hold back his love. He is Father to us all. Today, some of us have families who make a big deal of Father’s day, many not so much- my own Dad will probably be surprised when I ring him later, but today we all have one Father that we can say thank you to, that we can spend time with.

And he calls us his Sons- which for around 50% of us is a bit odd. But he does. And to get to grips with that idea- which isn’t an exclusive or a sexist concept, we need to think ourselves into the head of Paul’s hearers in Galatia and the Christians of the 1st century AD.  We can call God Father- so far so crazy, but not just that, we are heirs of God. We aren’t servants, stewards, friends or disciples, we aren’t worshippers or believers… and if anyone ever suggests to you that all religions are essentially the same, here’s the thing- God calls us his Sons and himself our Father.

To be a son means a place right close to the father, to be a son means to have a role and a responsibility now and in the future. To be a son means to have confidence in our place. In the society Paul was writing to there was such a vast difference between how sons and daughters were treated and in places he addressed that, as Jesus did in how he responded to women and children, but here Paul is explaining what our relationship to God is like- they would understand the father-son relationship… There is, in that relationship all sorts of things- love and trust and hope and responsibility and closeness etc… its all there without needing to be unpacked… so we’re all sons… I’m a Son, you’re a son… and if you’re thinking this is just far too patriarchal, we’re also the bride of Christ… but that’s for another day.

Closeness. As sons, or if you’re still coming to terms with that, maybe I’ll just say ‘children’ of God, we’re invited into this unique relationship with God. We don’t have to stand off at a distance, we can come close- and God, Father, loves it when we do- to sit with him, to listen to him, to bring him our worries and hopes, to ask his advice… and when we’ve come to that place, most of us know, that if we’re able to switch off the phone and diary that tells what else we’re meant to be doing, that it’s a place we want to stay in… but here’s the thing. When God speaks into my heart ‘Andy, I love you, I’m so pleased you’re here spending time with me, now its time to go out into the world, to the places and people that we both care about and share that love with my other children who don’t know that I’m their father… but come back soon, anytime’. That coming close to be sent out is the mark of our sonship- out of relationship with the Father we are sent to the world.

 

Volcanoes and radiators- life as usual

Easter… It was two weeks ago now, and since then there’s been school holidays, church annual meetings, a family wedding, a funeral, a trip to the beach… and life carries on.

And that is the problem- somehow or other the events of Easter, which we proclaim as life universe changing don’t seem to always have an impact on the life that we live every day. Or maybe I’m looking too hard? Maybe I’m looking for volcanic eruptions of faith when in fact all around me are radiators. I want to see explosions and bangs and new islands appearing in the sea, but I’m missing out on the gradual warmth that brings life and support. And which is better?

I’m a big fan of enthusiasm, passion and commitment, but in order for commitment to endure it has to, well, last- it has to be more than a flash in the pan. And sometimes enthusiasm and passion, for all their noise and excitement just don’t, well, last. But equally low level commitment doesn’t always engage- it doesn’t get things going. Both are needed. The question is ‘which one needs to have priority in my life at the moment?’ Is today a persevering day or a partying day?

Have a think for yourself, have a look at your situation, have a pray about it, have a chat with someone you trust… and then act on it- because the one thing I’m sure of, is that today is a day for something rather than nothing.

 

Thoughts from a place of rest in John’s Gospel

…August is usually a time of holiday and rest for many people, and in churches a lot of programmes get put to one side for a few weeks.  However much of the life of our communities still goes on, even if we’re not formally organising things- meeting people in the street or a cafe still happens, there is still sickness and death, work still causes stress, babies are born and there are explosions of joy all around us- and none of it is planned.  This week I’ve been taking some holiday- actual holiday rather than going to a conference or pastoring at a festival, and so haven’t been online in the same way as usual. I won’t pretend I took a fast from the internet and technology as I’ve been checking the weather, looking up things for the family and playing more Nintendo than in the previous 3 months… and despite the English summer the family have managed a bike ride, a sailing trip, overnight camping (with a fire!) and a hike on the moor… and now I’m back to work today, prepping for tomorrow and things next week.

In the meantime, here’s the script for what I preached last Sunday morning- as usual the text won’t match the audio recording here but you can have fun playing spot the difference. This passage from the end of John chapter 6 comes after various miracles and in the midst of a long teaching discourse- it doesn’t feel as though Jesus is in a place of rest as he repeatedly deals with the comments and responses of his listeners…

In the passage from John’s Gospel Jesus lays out, using picture language, who he is-

He’s like the Manna that came from heaven- food God gave their ancestors to help them survive in the desert in the time of Moses… so he’s from God, to help… a gift that brings life

BUT he’s also different- you don’t actually eat him, and he doesn’t actually nourish you like bread… even though he says you really have to… he’s the source of our life, he’s also the route to that life… when you eat food and drink something, you are trusting it completely- you’re putting it into your body…

When we think about salvation and eternal life, when we try to explain it, we often use pictures of things like a great big wall between us and God or a gap between us and God, as a way of describing life without God- we’re alive, but we can’t reach God, and everything we know is poorer because of that fact.  If you’re ever talking to someone about what it means to be a Christian, one of the hardest things to explain, and for them to grasp, is that you see things differently… In our society we’re so used to moving pictures that we barely notice them- screens are so all-present that its really difficult for us to think back to what it must have been like for grown adults, in a sophisticated society, to see for the first time a picture that moved- at the first ‘movies’ people screamed and fainted when things moved towards and past the camera without coming through the screen and into the theatre- without any cgi necessary! They just didn’t understand what was in front of them.

It’s the same when we try to explain what it means to follow Jesus, and Jesus faced this difficulty too- (which should encourage us when we’re worrying about this!)… When we try to explain what Jesus does, we can end up describing him like a bridge, or a gate- a thing. But we need to remember he’s a person too. He was real. He taught people to trust him, to follow him, and they told others, and some of them wrote that down, and others talked about it, and so on… and I’m talking to you because someone told me about it… a person told me about what another person has done… it can get all complicated by pictures, or they can help us to get things, but ultimately its about a person, called Jesus, and our response to him. People follow Jesus because of other people, not because of an idea. Let me show you what that means- put your hand up if you first came to church because someone invited or brought you… ok, keep it up, put your hand up if you came to understand more about Jesus or became a Christian because someone talked to you… most people in the world who are part of a church or have a faith in Jesus are in that position because someone else told them- not because of a concept, or a book- somewhere along the line, it comes down to people, and those people who’ve helped us to come to faith are trying to live like Jesus…

If we want to know what he was like, we can look at the Bible which describes his actions and what he said, or we can look at people who say they are trying to follow him, we can ask them how they follow him and we can join in that endeavour. We might try, for a while, to follow some of his ideas, to be like him in certain ways, but that would be like someone who, to use the idea that Jesus uses in this passage, is invited to come to dinner – you have to hear the invitation, turn up, sit down and eat… otherwise you might have done a whole lot of things, but you haven’t been for dinner… unless you do all of those.  Jesus said to those who were listening to him, who’d enjoyed the miracles and maybe been at the amazing picnic, who’d heard him say things that challenged other people… to those people Jesus now said- you have got to trust me, completely. Even more than our ancestors trusted God in the desert. And people didn’t like that. They liked, just like we do, to be able to trust a little and to hold back a little, to have control. As children and grown-ups we want to have control of things- the remote control is a classic example in every home… but Jesus says, give me control, and here’s why-

Those who were hearing Jesus, and us today, have to face up to two truths-

  • Jesus definitely talks about what happens after we die. He talks about eternal life, he talks about being raised up to life… and he talks about that eternal life being completely dependent on having him at the centre of our lives- we live because of him. Jesus claims that he can be trusted to help us with what happens after we die.
  • Jesus definitely talks about what happens before we die. He talks about feeding the hungry and healing the sick, about loving our neighbour and forgiving our irritating siblings… he talks about our life today being connected to that eternal life, and that he wants to be involved in how we live every day of the week. Jesus claims that he can be trusted to help us with what happens straight after we leave this building.

Everything we’ve been hearing about the Kingdom of God over the last few months revolves around these two things- and weaves them together… our eternal life in the kingdom of God starts when we commit to follow Jesus, and as we love our neighbours and pray for the transformation of our community so we bring the kingdom of God into our homes and workplaces…

So- what about our kettle, our puppet and our rubbish sack? Well, each one of them has a purpose, that can only be fully seen when they are filled… the kettle with water, the puppet with a hand and the sack with rubbish… and when they’re not filled they’re pretty useless. A church has a purpose, Christians have a purpose, and we need to be filled with God’s love and the Holy Spirit. And when we are filled we’re able to keep on… being like Jesus in places where its hard, sharing God’s love with those who really don’t seem that interested, blessing the people around us even when they don’t seem to deserve it- because someone was like Jesus for us, someone shared God’s love with us, someone helped us to know God’s blessing…

Let’s pray.

Let me tell you a story… its all about you, and me

This weekend I really wanted to speak about a parable in a way that made the most of what it is- its a story, and so I decided to write a story about it, or at least talk about it as a story rather than anything else… so this is (as always, approximately) what I said about Mathew 25- the parable of the sheep and the goats:

There is a story of a ruler, who for one day every year would leave his palace and go out among the people. He would leave behind his crown, his symbols of power, his guards and advisors, and go, and see how his people lived, and how they treated one another. And then on his return, he would know how to rule them for the year to come. Each year he would dress as someone different- whether as a business man, a homeless man, a factory worker, a farm hand, disguise himself as someone older or younger, sometimes as someone from another country, and he would see how his people treated him, and on his return he would know who in his land needed especial care. He would notice who among the people showed kindness to a stranger, or was rude even to their friends, he would sit alongside the hungry and watch as they were fed or ignored, and he would know who in his land was deserving of reward, and who needed to learn the lesson of compassion and generosity.

That’s what the passage from Matthew’s gospel is about… the king has noticed all that his people have done, has noticed how they treat the least of those among them. And so he treats them as they have treated others. It’s not unfair- it’s absolutely fair.  This isn’t talking about how things are now- its challenging us to live in a certain way now, because of what will happen in the future.  We are called to live as we know we ought to live, because one day we will be asked to account for what we have and haven’t done.

I was talking with some friends about being inspected in the workplace- and how different organisations do it differently- with Ofsted schools get a bit of warning, but not much- they have time to panic and tidy things up but not to completely change everything. In the NHS medical centres get nearer 2 weeks- which gives you time to sort out the paperwork that was just piling up, but does mean that the inspectors don’t really see how things operate normally- its even possible to hide staff that are not so clued up from the inspectors… in a bank where another friend works, the inspectors just walk in through the front door and there they are- no warning. They get to see how the bank operates on any given day… but are the bank employees so worried about the possibility of inspection that they aren’t able to work properly?

The difference between these things and the Christian life is that the inspections in work situations are often to do with procedure and paper evidence for things- showing how you did something, or providing support for your decisions. In the Christian life, whether we’re talking about our own journeying with God or the stuff of our Church life, or the impact our faith has on the people around us, God is not so worried about the paperwork- it’s the work that he cares about. Rather than waiting up every day and wondering whether Jesus is going to ask what you’re doing, we should live in the knowledge that Jesus is with us every day, and already knows what we do- there’s no point in worry about that. In fact, it’s not even the outcomes, but the intention- notice that it doesn’t talk about whether the acts of kindness were well received or whether someone came to know God’s love, but that they were offered…

Whether you’ve been a Christian all your life, are just starting out, or don’t yet know what it means to be a Christian, know this: Within each of us there are things that we know are right, things we know we’d like to do more, parts of our character we know we would like to see blossom- each one of us knows in our hearts how much better it is to be kind, loving, generous, patient, faithful, compassionate, peace filled, joyful… so what is stopping us? Live today as you want to live your life- you don’t get to the end and rewind for a second go… every time you do something or don’t do it, that is the only chance you have for that particular thing.

Whether it’s in our work, as parents, in our families, amongst friends or strangers… and the more we live rightly in the small things, the more we’ll be able to live right in the big things- if we avoid ‘harmless gossip’ then we’ll find it obvious and easy to avoid backstabbing or malicious lies… if we are generous once, it will become easier to be generous with everything we have… If we can avoid becoming angry with someone, and find a way to peace, then it will become easier for us to become people filled with peace, and that will flow from us to those around us. It may be a bit odd- the people who know us may have grown as used to how we’ve always been as we have, and we will struggle at times- the prayer of Paul for the church in Ephesus is a signpost towards how we can reach beyond our own natural inclinations or abilities- God’s Spirit, God’s love in us, that the eyes of our hearts may be opened…

But it’s not difficult to start. It’s not something that we have to be old enough, or rich enough, which has to wait until we’re retired or the kids have grown up… this is day to day stuff. Don’t live looking over your shoulder in case the inspector is coming, but live each day walking with Jesus- by your side, opening your eyes to the things you could do, to the person you can be.

I tried to source the story that I mention at the beginning- I thought it came from a Neil Gaiman story, but I think my mind smudged together several editions of Sandman and put a few extra bits in there too… I also ended up thinking about and talking about the amazing ‘children see, children do’ video from napcan- view it here but be prepared- it won’t make you smile.

Holding on to hope

As well as the daily readings by Simon Guillebaud that I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been reading through Pauls first letter to the church in Thessalonica this week. There’s lots in there about hope- he uses the word ‘encourage’ about 10 times (I haven’t counted, its a guesstimate) in quite a short letter, and also lots of ‘giving thanks for…’- Paul is both encouraged by them, and also wants to encourage them. But what for?

The reading I had this morning, which linked to Psalm 121 (I lift my eyes up to the hills, where does my hope come from? My hope comes from you Lord…) helped me to focus my thoughts on what we’re about, what Paul was saying to the church in northern Macedonia- Hope. Keep hoping. Don’t give up hoping. Look higher than your current difficulties and hope.

This week I’ve been organising a number of funerals, been hearing about friends with cancer or who’s children are ill, I’ve barely looked at the news but I guess there are still thousands suffering and dying from Ebola, millions of refugees and many living with the fear of job loss or relational instability… In the face of those things hope can seem a little insubstantial, not really solid enough. But it is also indestructible and everpresent- it is always with us if we just look for it. Even when we see no hope in this life, the Bible (and throughout the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians- just go look if you don’t believe me) speaks of hope for a future- beyond this life there is something more, something better. Its up to us whether we choose to accept this as being true, but actually our belief in it doesn’t make it true- it either is, or isn’t… its whether we want to put our hope in it or not.

Be Alert! But what if I don’t want to be a lert?

I’ve been reading, over the past week, some material by Simon Guillebaud- a daily discipleship resource called Choose Life 365. If you’ve not come across him, he’s a larger than life figure- working in Burundi as part of a missionary organisation he’s had your usual (!?) death threats and run of the mill diseases and privation. When he speaks there’s not a huge amount of gently gently going on, but rather a fairly full-on message, and if you’re wondering what he does to relax, its a combination of triathlon and iron man events- in a country where there are crocodiles in the rivers you definitely swim fast!

Anyway, love or loathe the man, his writing makes you think.

In particular, the last few days have been about being alert to what is around us- to the amount of stuff we have, the adverts we see, the pressure we feel to conform- even though we apparently live in a culture of choice and consumer privilege. He also writes about being alert to what is in the background, and speaks of the spiritual side of things. I often find it hard to talk about spiritual darkness and forces of evil, and can’t completely get away from childhood imagery of a comic vision of the the devil whenever I read or talk about Satan, but i have a huge respect for those who’ve worked in places where spiritualism and shamanism is far more common- Guillebaud and others like him have been in the scary places and I choose to listen to their voice of experience.

‘Be alert, for the enemy prowls round like a hungry lion…’ I’ve once heard a hungry lion, but I’ve no desire to come close to one, and so I choose to be alert, even to risks and dangers that I have never had to face. The truth is that its quite easy to be alert to large noisy creature that is in front of you. The harder part is to remain alert when it all seems quiet, or when you have that sense of ‘not quite right’ though you cannot spot the problem. That’s when you have to choose to be alert, even when you might not want to.

Pentecost… what’s that all about anyway?

So gave this talk yesterday, as we celebrated Pentecost in our two churches, and then this morning I bumped into a friend who doesn’t go to church and we got talking about what Pentecost is, what it means to people in different churches and how its this secret, hidden celebration in the middle of the church year… (if you’re reading this and you know who you are, I hope you’ll forgive me for writing a blog post in response to our conversation!).  Anyway, the weird bit for me was that i’d deliberately not spent much of yesterday talking about what Pentecost is (the ancient Jewish harvest festival 50 days after passover) and spent more of my time talking about the Holy Spirit (who came and filled the believers on the festival of Pentecost following after Jesus’ death and resurrection)…

The thing I’m puzzling over is whether its more important to give people an understanding of the event (Pentecost) or the person that we celebrate (the Holy Spirit)… anyway, this is, mostly, what I said yesterday… Oh, and if you’re waiting for the first E100 blog, it’ll come later this evening…

The Holy Spirit- described previously as the counsellor and the comforter (NB ref DGJ’s mention of William the conqueror comforting his troops!)… what do we make of the Holy Spirit?

Because I’ve had to try and explain Pentecost and the Holy Spirit to primary school children, I’ve had to make sure that my understanding of the Holy Spirit isn’t too complicated, but at the same time I’ve always understood that the Holy Spirit is complicated. One of the images that I’ve found helpful is electricity- we all know what it is, and how to use it, we can all tell if something is electrically powered- battery slots, wires etc and we can all recognise electricity in action- though interestingly it does have some similarities with other forms of power… BUT at the same time, actually, very few of us really understand how electricity works- the movement of electrons within a sea of metal atoms… or is it about the alignment of electrons within the shells? As soon as we try to get to grips with it, actually our level of understanding slips away…  we understand what it does, not necessarily how it works.  At other times people use the image of the wind to help understand the Holy Spirit- partly because that’s an image we can find within the Bible- the breath of God, the pneuma or ruach… or still we might think of the Spirit as fire- partly because that’s mentioned in the passage we heard today. The problem with all of these is that they can make us forget we’re talking about a person here- not a person with arms or legs, but a person nonetheless- part of God rather than just God’s Duracell batteries.  Just as we often find it easier to talk about the characteristics of God- loving, holy, creative rather, so one of the ways that we can go a bit deeper in our understanding of the Holy Spirit of God is to consider what the Holy Spirit does- the work of the Spirit…

Alongside the Father and the Word in creation, in empowering God’s servants, in inspiring the prophets and the teachers- the role in both the Old and New Testaments seems to be that of an enabler, helping others to flourish and guiding them…

So how do we relate to the Holy Spirit? Many of us will feel more comfortable praying to God as father, Lord or creator, we might think of thanking Jesus for his sacrifice- and especially in our songs and hymns, but we often bypass the Holy Spirit… just as we might speak over the heads of children or the elderly (does she take sugar?- I’m deaf not dead!)… we might ask God to send his Holy Spirit, when we can also ask the Holy Spirit to come- we can pray, speak, and sing directly to the Holy Spirit.

In us- like an electrical device has wires running through it

Filling us- like water in a jug, or a sail that is tugging, like air fills a balloon and gives it shape

Powering us- like a battery, water wheel, wind in the sails or heat

Leading us- like an inspirational coach or guide

And what about Pentecost? It’s the point at which the Holy Spirit no longer limited those things, and particularly those last two, to just one person at a time- so Saul was filled with the Spirit, and then David was, but not both at the same time… on the day of Pentecost and ever since, the Holy Spirit has filled people left right and centre, spreading in, through and beyond the activity of God’s church in the world…

What does the Holy Spirit do when it comes and fills, leads and empowers?

NT stuff- gifts, fruit… 9 listed in Galatians, the gifts described in Romans, Corinthians, Acts… but all that comes later, the first thing is that people respond and receive the Holy Spirit- God in us…

And so that’s what we spent the next while doing- waiting, praying, listening, receiving.

Dem bones dem bones dem dry bones…

So, was speaking about Ezekiel chapter 37, which is the inspiration, would you believe it, for the children’s song- if you’re not convinced go and look at verses 1-14 alongside the words of the song… happy now?

Anyway, it was a family service, so we had 10 kids as the bones etc, one person as the voice of God, another as Ezekiel, everyone else was the sound of the rattling and the wind, and we alternated between them reading bits and me explaining/expanding on what was being said… so these notes probably make no sense, but they contain some of the gist.

If you’re wondering why no posts for the last few weeks- A.G.M. season. No, its not a sport that i follow fanatically, but as leader of 2 churches i’ve had 2 sets of accounts to look over, 2 sets of reports to collate, 2 meetings to chair etc… and now its a nice rest time. Holy Week with all the stuff of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter will be a breeze!

here’s the notes from last Sunday:

Scene-setting: this comes from the writings of Ezekiel, who spoke God’s word to the people of Israel while they were in exile in Babylon.

After Ezekiel’s first speech: This is one of many visions that Ezekiel had- its important as we hear it and try to understand it that we realise this is picture language- it means something else… a metaphor. Ezekiel had these visions because he was listening… he was expecting God to speak to him- he would have had that expectation because God had spoken to him previously. We don’t know whether Ezekiel had an ongoing inner conversation with God (like St Augustine, among others), or whether he had occasional but significant pictures, but he listened to God, and God spoke to him.  Often when we come to pray, its tempting to just bring our list of requests, but its important that we listen to what God might want to say to us.

Prayer day stuff- some things that people wrote down during or after our prayer day- that there is a sense of lightness here, with no need to feel burdened, that the church is a source of light for those who come into the space- people feel Gods presence here. Another person wrote that we need to ‘let the light out’- like a beacon in our community, many who we know remark on the warmth, but was left wondering whether enough light is getting out to those who don’t cross the threshold. The passage from Romans 8- if God is for us, then who can be against us, for we are more than conquerors, but another person had a picture that the church is like a big block of activity balancing on a slim pinnacle of prayer- we need to broaden our prayer base.

These are just the sort of things that we, us, normal everyday Christians, have felt that God is saying in our church over the last few months… the thing is that we put time aside to listen to God, and so we heard from God.

After Ezekiel’s second speech: Do we sometimes feel as though we’re standing still, that we’re sort of alive but missing something- that we’ve lost momentum or direction?

After Ezekiel’s third speech: the breath of God brings life- it reminds me of the very beginning of Genesis… God’s Spirit breathing life into the universe… this picture describes something that cannot naturally happen… God’s holy Spirit brings life where there was none before. Remember it’s a vision… what did it mean to those who first heard it, and what does it mean for us? God’s Spirit turns plans into life… without it all we do is just a whirring of wheels… we’re not able to be who or what we’re meant to be.  BALLOON!! The good news is that God’s Holy Spirit is within all Christians… are we full? Are we being refilled? We need to know its already within us, but also to receive this gift, this help.

After reading is finished… children to go over to Kim.

How can I be more fully alive? How can the church be more fully alive? How do we let the Spirit of God work in us?

In part its to do with knowing where we fit into things- I feel more alive when I am doing the things I’m meant for- when I’m in the right place or playing my part…

In part its to do with our expectations of God- what expectations do we have about how God is going to be at work in our lives or this community? If we look at Scripture we can see that God changes the lives of people again and again- in the Old Testament and the New.

In part its to do with aligning ourselves gradually, as individuals and as churches, with God’s values- of loving service, of seeking justice and opposing injustice, of mercy, of offering forgiveness and grace.  We do this knowing that we’re still the same confused, selfish, grumpy ‘sin-full’ people that we’ve always been, but that God wants to bring healing and transformation to us, and into the world through us. As we do our best to try and allow God to be our Lord, so we’ll gradually hand over parts of our lives, and so allow God to guide us in His ways, because we recognise they’re better than our own plans.

And remembering the balloon- this is what it means for us to grow as Christians, do become more the shape we’re meant to be, so that we will be playing our part…

so go on, be a balloon, not a damp piece of rag (to quote Winnie the Pooh)- its what we’re meant to be…