A stormy ride with Jesus- the cradle of faith is the edge of our comfort zone

From seeds to storms, last week we were thinking about some of the stories that Jesus told, this week we were thinking about what one of the miracles recounted in the Gospel of Mark might mean- thinking about how our faith is something dynamic and alive, that grows within us and flows out of us…

Talked last week about seeds- sowing, waiting and the harvest, this week we’re going to think particularly about the growing bit- and rather than thinking about how faith might grow in someone else, and the part we play in that of prayer, support and creating an environment suitable for growth, we’re going to look at how faith grows and becomes stronger in us…

The passage we had read to us this morning takes place at the end of a day of teaching, and the style of writing suggests that this is an event that took place rather than a story Jesus told. Other details in the passage indicate that we should read it as a real event rather than a metaphor- its not saying that its ‘as if’ Jesus had power over the wind and the waves, but that he did- the setting of it in the midst of the everyday, the size of the storm ‘a furious squall that nearly swamped the boat’ rather than ‘the biggest storm in the whole world ever’ and the confusion of the disciples (they aren’t presented as having understanding and wisdom that would come after reflection on the event, but as ‘terrified’…), these point towards a factual setting rather than a mythic/metaphorical… But why am I making this point? Simply this- the Bible presents this miracle as actually happening in an actual boat in front of people who were actually scared… they were scared of the storm, and they were scared of Jesus. The disciples have seen Jesus perform miracles- the catch of fish that nearly broke the nets for example, but yet his authority over the wind terrifies them… because they are confronted by the reality of who Jesus is- not just their teacher, not simply someone wise or even a prophet, but someone who can command nature with authority. When we know someone in one context, and suddenly see them in a different light, it changes things- we know each other here in the limited way that we do, but when we see someone in a different place, doing things we never knew they could do, that unsettles us- magnify that up… and we have a sense of how the disciples might have felt.

Have you ever had that experience of God- that realisation that you now see things differently… Very often that happens when we are in a different place to our usual- sometimes worshipping God in a different style or location, sometimes going to a conference, pilgrimage or retreat. Sometimes it happens when we are at the end of our own strength or ability to cope… ‘God, I really need you now’…but we need to have some knowledge or experience to base that hope on… how can we call out to God if we do not know he is there to hear us?  That is how our faith grows- we are outside of our normal, comfortable surroundings either because of our own choice or not and we open ourselves to God… coming intentionally seeking to know more of God, or desperately needing to know God is there… its true that our faith can grow in times of difficulty- but it can grow in every season of our lives if we make that choice. That’s why its important for us to know that worship isn’t about preferred styles of prayer or singing, it isn’t about what I know or find confusing- its first and foremost about meeting with God- those of us who lead have the privilege of inviting and leading other people into that encounter, and those of us who are not leading have the equal privilege of responding to that invitation…

That is one example of how we can grow in faith, but the principle holds true across our lives-

When we are outside of the normal things that we have known, then we grow (until our normal practice becomes that consistent habit of growth- when our default mode is to develop as a disciple, to have an expectation that our faith is growing daily as we follow Jesus…)

But for most Christians we’re not in the habit of growing. We’re living as Christians but not growing as Christians. And yet we want, or at least would appreciate having greater faith.  In order to have greater faith, we must first reach a place of dissatisfaction with ourselves- not self hatred or guilt, but an aspiration to go beyond where we are- born maybe out of experience of something wonderful (I’ve read that, seen that, felt it myself on occasion… I want it more) or something bad (I’ve been there and I don’t want to go there again, I know my own weaknesses… ). Faith cannot grow in us if we do not want it to. Simple.

If we do not want to see a miracle, we won’t see one.  If we do not want to see prayers answered or hear God speak into our lives, it won’t happen.  If we do not want to love our neighbours, grow in our understanding of the Bible, become more confident in our faith, worship God with increased joy… then none of those things will happen. We have received God’s love, God’s grace, but it has not fully grown and flourished in us…

BUT if we do… by taking a small step beyond our own comfort zone- praying each day for something new; meeting with someone and talking about our faith or a Bible passage with them, thinking hard about some of the ethical applications of our faith- to material things like shopping and use of money, getting involved in serving the community to feed the hungry or clothe the naked, go to New Wine or Spring Harvest or a youth camp or a day retreat, consciously commit yourself to worshipping God in our times together- go somewhere else for a week to get inspired and bring back something of what you’ve experienced… do this, and your faith will grow. Not necessarily in a logical progression that can be clearly identified, unless that is your personality, but it will grow. And as it grows you will become more aware that it could grow further.

It may be that we will face opposition from others if we do this- those who may feel judged by our decisions, who are made uncomfortable by our desire to grow in faith. That’s for them to reconcile with God, but don’t let it stop you.  There are others who want you to grow in faith, and who want to grow alongside you, and would be willing to help and be helped along the way- we help to keep the path clear for each other, making sure there are no stumbling blocks for one another.

So- we’re going to do something now, just as we move into a time of prayer and before we say the words of the creed which is our gathered response to God’s word, I want to invite each of us to make a response to God. A response in our hearts and a first step in our lives. God calls each of us to come to him, and to know him, to grow in faith. We never reach the end of doing that, and so each one of us can say that we want to grow in faith… so what we’re going to do is this- as we’re sitting, we’re going to close our eyes and be still for a moment, and then I’m going to simply say ‘I want to grow in faith’. And if you agree with that, I’d ask you to do something- you may want to stand up, you may want to put your hand up, you may want to open your hands on your lap, but if you want to grow in your faith, show it by doing something… this isn’t about showing off, but about showing God that your desires do connect with your actions… and then I’ll pray for us…

Obviously I’m not doing the bit at the end with you right now, but neither will I or anyone else be watching if you do want to do something to show your own commitment.

Have a great day, have a great week.

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E100 day 8- testing, testing… can you hear me?

Abram has become Abraham… woohoo! Amazing… but he still doesn’t have any kids. He’s been given this promise by God that he’ll be the father of a nation, but so far all that’s happened is he’s got a longer name, and some flocks of sheep and goats. Not quite what you’d expect.

And now, at last, tada- a son is born, in Genesis chapter 21– thats 9 chapters and 25 years since the first call, the first promise. And maybe Abraham had at times asked ‘can you hear me?’, or wondered whether his prayer link to God was working…

It’s easy to look back at times like that and call it a test- God was testing you, it was a testing time for my faith… but when its happening to you now it rarely feels like a test… it feels more like something you want to stop- you’re not thinking about how well you’re coping, just about getting through.

And here in chapter 21-22 we see another situation that’s often called a test- God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (the one who is the answer to the promise, remember?)… and we look at it and whisper ‘its a test, a difficult one, but a test, and I’m sure Abraham will do fine’; while if we’re honest we’re thinking ‘so glad that God hasn’t asked this of me’.

I have a think about tests, and the thing is that I don’t really like them. And I particularly don’t like surprise tests. I’m really not keen on surprise tests being dropped on you by people who love you. And so I struggle with the idea of God dropping these tests on people like Abraham and the rest of us. I may be right out of whack here, but I struggle with this.

Maybe I prefer continual assessment- everything is a challenge, opportunity or test… in every situation we can flourish, shine, scrape through or completely flunk it… And rather than God being there like the examiner, waiting to see how we’ve done, God is there alongside us, helping us through…

I guess its all to do with my perspective, my understanding of God- first of all, that He’s there, present, and cares about my existence. Those two understandings are fairly huge in themselves. Then I would add that not only does God care about my existence, but is aware of and cares about everything in my and your lives. That God loves and knows (and still loves) each person and all of the universe. And its from that perspective that I view and try to come to terms with the narrative that we’re looking at in the Bible- I know its not a neutral stance, and it lacks intellectual rigour, but its my stance and hey, this is my blog…

Anyway, I’m going to go and check whether the microphone is plugged in, and have a chat with the Man… and hopefully I’ll remember to try and listen to Him too.

at the end of a quiet week

It’s been a quiet week, at least online.

In the other world it’s been crazy busy, however. At the start of the week we ripped up the floor in one of our church buildings, just because we’re like that. Ah, that’s not quite true. It was because we discovered some rot in the floorboards which spread further and was symptomatic of a more serious problem with the floor… we’ve now pulled out all the timber and tonnes of soil/rubble… next week the builders start putting new things in.

Before we started, this is what it used to look like… by Monday it was this:

By the end of the week most of that had become a flat surface…

At the end of the week we ran a marriage preparation workshop in a neighbouring church as a joint project between 5 churches- 10 couples who are getting married this year came together for a day designed to help them build a fulfilling and lifelong marriage. After wanting to do this for ages, we finally managed to get it to happen, and had a great day. But it was a lot of work. I may post some of the transcripts from the sessions, but they rely heavily on discussion exercises and video clips so might not make a lot of sense without those.  For the two of us (Carolyn and I did the sessions together as much as possible) it reminded us of a similar day we attended nearly 10 years ago, and it also gave us a nudge about all the stuff that we want to be doing to keep on growing our love and building our relationship.

Alongside those things, all the ‘usual’ stuff of the week had to happen too, including preaching this morning- except we weren’t in the church, we were in the hall next door. Its amazing how moving the same people and most of the same stuff into a different room, and doing some really similar stuff, can create a completely different atmosphere. Our time this morning felt really intimate and cosy, and people seemed very engaged both with each other and the worship.  In the midst of all that I was speaking about the wedding party that is described at the start of John’s Gospel, with some thoughts based on a great teaching video i recently watched by Jonny Hughes, a pastor at htb, a church in London.

Here’s a rough draft of what i said (yup, it never got any further than this- I said it had been a busy week…)

One day there was a wedding taking place, and everyone was invited to the party…Mary was, and so was Jesus. He came along with several of his friends… the story is reasonably well known- I’ll retell it.

The sermon: its about going, not knowing. The servants didn’t know, they were just told to go. If I’d been doing this I’d have been tempted to have a small glass poured for myself- just to check it had all worked ok… but no. Go, take the wine and give it out- have faith in his words…

This isn’t the first time in the Bible that we see this happening- with Abram- go, I will tell you when you’ve arrived in the promised land; with Moses- go, I will bring my people out of slavery and you’ll know I’m with you when you arrive back here. And later in the New Testament, when Jesus calls the first disciples- follow me, I will make you fishers of men, and later: go into all the world and I will be with you.

When people encounter God, the outcome is that God’s instructions- go, come, follow always precede the proof… God always asks his people to have faith. God asks us to have faith. Faith is going without knowing. You’ll know when you get there, when you arrive back, when the Holy Spirit comes, when you’re standing before kings and emperors and I give you the words to speak, when you’re extending the hand of love into the local community and you see people respond- after we have faith, not before.

God doesn’t ask anything of us that we cannot do- its that we don’t believe ourselves. The servants at the wedding could fill jars with water and serve drinks to the guests… that’s all they were being asked to do. God is at work, we’re just in the vicinity.  God often has greater faith in us than we do. If we believed in God’s dreams for our church and this community as much as God does, it would change everything. We believe in a creative, generous God who’s love overflows throughout all creation- so why in our worship and our faith do we so often look as though we’re on rations?

This, the first miraculous sign that Jesus did, showed that he had power over the things of nature, that the normal order of things would not bind him- that this messiah was not the messiah people were looking for, but was something very much more. If you read through John’s gospel, looking for the other signs, you’ll see a gradually emerging picture of a messiah who is the word of God-as described in the very first verses of the gospel. We worship the Son of God, the power of God incarnated in a human body, and he calls us to put our faith in him, and go into the world.

As I finish, we’re just going to spend a few moments, before we move on, reflecting on what that last thing might mean- something we say most weeks at the end of our worship- we go into the world… where is it that we go? Where is the place where each of us goes, where we are the presence of God, the hope of the Gospel? You might be the only person in your workplace, or your class, or your street who would profess to being a Christian. What might it mean for you to be called by God to go into that place?

mutterings of a one armed typist…

ok, so slightly off-piste from what I’ve normally been writing, but there you go. also, written with no disrespect to people who mutter, are typists or only have the use of one arm.

i’m writing with one arm and minimal attention as i’m also cradling a 2 month old boy. Samuel has  decided that today he wants to hang out with daddy, and i’m trying to juggle looking after him with at least some productivity.

my conclusion? its not easy. phonecalls? interrupted. trains of thought? derailed. typing? slow and painful. prayer? distracted at best.

So? I take my hat off, salute and generally give a (one handed) round of applause to all who manage to get through not just a few hours but the years of care that raising one child entails. Its a miracle that houses don’t fall apart, that food gets bought, prepared and eaten and it completely reminds me of the utter amazingness of women. To all who question whether women have a place in leadership, i would reply with the question whether men are capable of coping with the tasks almost every mother manages.

And to prove the truth of all this, I just had to walk away from the computer for 20minutes while Samuel tried to decide whether he wanted a sleep or preferred to headbutt my shoulder continually… so much for that detailed and beautiful reflection on the beginning part of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth (often referred to as 1 Corinthians), all about the wisdom of God and the folly of human intelligence. Ah well, go read it for yourself here and let me know what you think of chapters 1 and 2.

What is an ‘appropriate’ celebration?

what’s an appropriate level of celebration? or rather, what’s an inappropriate level?

or to put it more specifically, what’s an appropriate level of Christmas decor for a church? I was struck by this as I discussed with some folk about decorating our church for a school Christmas play… ok, so Blackpool illuminations might be taking it too far, but surely we of all people are allowed to get a little bit giddy at the thought of celebrating Christmas. Irrespective of your take on the whole ‘Christians just nicked the date from the local pagans 2000yrs ago’ idea,  The name does kind of suggest a link between Christmas and Christianity, and so we really ought to be as upbeat about the season as anyone else.

Of course, someone will tell me that we’re not in the season of Christmas, we’re in Advent which is a season of preparation that requires deep reflection and absolutely no sign of joy at all. Bah humbug!  Be all reflective and contemplative if you like, but if a bunch of people want to get excited about something at this time of year, I’m going to do my best to make sure that their celebration includes the birth of the Son of God.

Jesus came to bring peace on earth. I think most of us could do with a bit of that, and I think most of us would celebrate a bit more peace at this or any time of year.

but that is just my thought, and my position… what about you?

 

Day 85- Resurrectionology for beginners

Or something long and complicated like that… you know what I mean- its the difference between a simple retelling of an event and a fuller reflection on the meaning of that event… or the difference between a great picture and knowing what makes a great picture. One is ‘the thing’, the other is knowing and talking about ‘the thing’.

Which is what chapter 15 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is all about- its a reflection on what Jesus’ resurrection means, in terms of their faith, their hope, and their lives today. Its an immense piece of writing, and well worth the effort it takes… but it does take effort.

So my beginners guide to this would include:

It really, really did happen- I mentioned this yesterday, and I’m going to say it when I speak about it on Sunday, but I’ll put it here too- as far as Paul, and the early church, and all churches worldwide and pretty much all of the 1.2 billion Christians alive today are concerned, Jesus’ resurrection happened.  That doesn’t make it easier to understand, mind.

Its really important- there are things in the Bible that we can and do disagree about. There are things which are unclear. There are things that aren’t mentioned. But this ain’t one of them. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then, well, our hope for the future is grounded on something untrue.

Signpost

Its a signpost- cue neat picture:

Jesus’ death was a sign, and a confirmation, that death wasn’t the end- that death should hold no fear because it led to a new life, one that is so much better than this life, its as if we’re living as a shadow at the moment. Jesus showed what that might begin to look like.

Paul wrote all this stuff, not because he wanted to show off, but because the folk in Corinth were beginning to forget the importance of the resurrection- what they’d heard from eye-witnesses was beginning to become ‘just a story’ and lose its impact on their lives.

I hope that today I can live as if the resurrection of Jesus, with all its implications, is true.

Day 65- better late than never

Actually thats not an apology for a late post, but its an idea within the passage I read yesterday (John’s Gospel, chapter 11, verses 1-45). Its the passage describing the death and raising to life of Lazarus- if you’re not familiar with it, go and check it out.

When Jesus first hears that Lazarus is ill, his response is to stay put a few miles away. His friends think this is wise, as Jesus has been threatened, so a low profile seems like an eminently sensible idea.

Then, ‘lets go back’… after Lazarus has died.

Jesus gets there, the body is in the tomb, the women etc are weeping (Jesus wept- John 11.35, the shortest verse in the Bible for any other geeks or quiz fans out there). He tells Martha ‘it will be ok’ and she gives him a standard answer- of course Jesus, in God all will be ok, he’ll rise again at the last day’… but doesn’t get his meaning. Jesus is about to do something amazing.

They go to the tomb, open it up, and Jesus calls Lazarus by name… and out he comes.

Quite literally, in the eyes of the crowd, dead man walking.

And so the big question is ‘why did Jesus wait?’

Was it simply for timing? if he’d healed Lazarus it would have been ‘just another healing’? whereas this was a resurrection just outside Jerusalem shortly before the Passover… crowds would have been gathering, news passed on- a good time for a major miracle.

Was it compassion? Jesus was touched by the sadness of the sisters and the crowd, and responded to them, without really thinking?

Looking back at earlier verses it seems Jesus had a plan, but maybe the truth lies between the two- it was always Jesus plan to glorify God and to restore Lazarus to life, AND he was touched by the loss and emotions of people, so rather than prolong their suffering he just went straight to the tomb and called the man out?

Is this a passage that allows us to see the complexity of divine knowledge/plans and deeply human engagement that Jesus held?

The thing is, it sounds like a tension, but it doesn’t read like one- Jesus just lived it. Maybe thats the challenge for us… to try and live our lives closely aligned to God’s will, so that although our timing isn’t perfect and our implementation sucks, and we’ll rub folks up the wrong way as we go, our lives will be shot through with God’s love and that will redeem our mistakes?

What does anyone else think?

Days 63 & 64- tragedy, tragedy and more tragedy

Of course, I know that in many ways, when I write and experience difficulty it is very much as what folks are calling a ‘first world problem’. I’m not writing about that kind of stuff, I hope… I’m not blogging about how tired my legs felt whilst going for a bike ride on my day off, because I appreciate the luxury that is tiring myself out for fun. I’m not complaining about how much it seems I have to do, because I recognise that goes with having possessions.

The problems I’m thinking of are sickness, death, failed relationships, suffering… and yet even there I recognise that I’m not really touching on the true depth of third world problems- water (clean would be good, on tap would be even better), safety (to sleep at night without fear of attack or rape), freedom to speak and worship (whether implied or explicit oppression), health care (the hope that a fever or wound will as a matter of course be treated and recovery take place).

In case you’re wondering what Bible passage sparked these slightly downbeat thoughts, Its Mark’s Gospel, chapter 5. The beginning deals with the healing of a man who has a spiritual problem- he’s possessed by demons that make him violent, cause him to self-harm and drive him away from other people (whether this is an instance of demonic possession or mental illness isn’t my point- I think that we can distinguish between the two and its important to, otherwise all mental illnesses get tarred with the ‘demonic/spiritual’ brush which is a baaaad idea, or alternatively we put all spiritual/demonic problems in with other mental illnesses, which is logically flawed: there are similar symptoms but a different cause… anyway, moving on). Jesus meets the man, healing occurs; its all good. The man goes and shares this great news with his friends and family- yay! But then Jesus returns back across the lake.

Question: Were there no other sick, ill, oppressed or possessed people in the Decapolis region?

Then Jesus heals a woman who’s been bleeding for years and brings a child back to life. Yup. Read that again. Amazingly cool- you’d have loved to see it. And then he moves on again.

Question: Wasn’t anyone else sick, ill, bleeding or dying?

Of course, the answer is yes to both of these questions. But Jesus didn’t come as a paramedic. He came to create the possibility of healing and to open people’s eyes to a new possibility. He came to give the tragedy of life a new storyline.

Here’s where we started from. In times of tragedy many people look around for support and help, because things are falling apart around them. Some find that support from God, in their faith, or even in the faith they didn’t know they had. Others find it in different places, or look for it in a bottle or a needle… and here’s the tragedy that I see: they do that because they don’t see an alternative.

Because we try to be strong and independent, making our own way through the world, we brush aside all thoughts of support and vulnerability. Why would I want to be vulnerable to you when I can be invulnerable to all things? And then somehow, something slips through our armour- our own version of kryptonite, and we’re in deep trouble, without Lois Lane to rescue us.

The tragedy of life is that we do not notice how beautiful the world is, how important people are, how fortunate so many of us are, how little we do to actually make the world spin… until the day when our world comes crashing to a halt and the colour drains from everything.

It takes a tragedy to make us realise the true meaning of life. That is a tragedy.

So lets take the tragedy and turn it into something else in our lives.

Days 61 & 62- miracles, miracles and more miracles

John 9- Blind guy gets his sight back… shazaam

Luke 5- Paralytic gets to walk without even a hangover… zap (sorry about that one- I could blame someone else, but I chose to write it here)

Newport- a 91yr old lady with a broken hip walks around her house… cha-ching!

Hang on, that isn’t one of the Bible readings… the gospel of Newport? the epistle to the Newportians? Nope. Thats my friend. She’s cool. She broke her hip at the start of the month, spent a fortnight in hospital and came home last week. Yesterday I went round and she stood up to give me a hug. She’s 91yrs old and doing amazingly well.

I am in awe of the miracle that is the human body. It baffles me that it can work so well, and yet somehow still be so fragile, and in the midst of the fragility recover.

I don’t know whether my friend is healing fast because a bunch of us have been praying for her, or if its because she’s strong and fit, or if its because of the great care she received at the hospital (I love the National Health Service- any readers in countries without free healthcare for all, it truly is one of the greatest signs of a compassionate society and is something to work for; any healthcare workers reading this- you seriously rock.)

Also in Newport, a little human gradually grows inside of another human, and while they’re growing they kick and prod and listen to the outside world. Nope, not in the Gospels either, but in my own home. Such a cool thing, such a miracle.

Just a few weeks ago a friends’ baby with Encephalitis was really ill, convulsions etc, was in a coma, then kept sedated for a week, and gradually recovered sight, hearing, movement, swallowing… He’s such a hero… he’s a miracle.

The human body is amazing. Healthcare workers are amazing. Prayer is amazing.

We often say that we live in an age where miracles are in the past. Well, maybe I’m living in the past, but it seems pretty good to me.

Oh, and if you’ve read this far, just in case you don’t know- I’ve spent more years studying science than faith, I’m more qualified in biology than theology and I know more scientific Latin than Biblical Greek. New atheists such as Richard Dawkins use the term ‘magical’ to describe their feelings about the natural world because they recognise there is something amazing, but avoid words like ‘miraculous’ because they let God into the picture.

For the rest of today I’m going to see how many magical, miraculous things I can find, and I’ll be saying thanks to God for all of them.

Day 60- Dear God, hurry up now, Amen… or isn’t that how it works?

Today I was reading a passage from Matthew 21. Its a short passage, verses 18-22, containing two important ideas. The first is the miracle of the fig tree, where Jesus looks for fruit and, finding none, causes the tree to wither. What do we learn from this? Firstly, don’t be a fig tree around Jesus. Secondly, fruit trees are meant to bear fruit, so make sure you’re bearing fruit (some people refer to this particular miracle as an ‘enacted parable’- Jesus was teaching his disciples but made his point by his actions… its a nice phrase)

Anyway, that whole shebang about bearing fruit… its really important. But its not what I want to write about today.

A few verses later there’s a killer sentence ‘if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer’. Now, this verse is a real splitter. People tend to either take it onboard wholesale and so pray for anything and everything with complete faith. Or else they tend to put it in the ‘too tricky for me’ pile and don’t pray with much faith that God will turn up.

The difficulty comes because sometimes things happen, and sometimes they don’t. Does that stem from my faith, my sin, God’s power, God’s attention span, or what?

If I believe, God should answer my prayer.

The question I had this morning was ‘what is prayer?’ Do we sometimes define prayer loosely as ‘anything we talk to God about’. I know i do, especially when I’m trying to teach someone how to pray. But when I’m asking God for something, is prayer more tightly defined as ‘being in alignment with God’ or similar… and so my role in prayer isn’t simply to do the whole ‘Thanks, Sorry, Wow, Please’ format, but to seek to bring my thoughts and desires into line with God… and to allow God’s will and plans, as laid out in Scripture and through the Holy Spirit to spread into my thoughts and desires… that way my prayer will become God’s will…

And so when I pray, it won’t be on my terms, but on His.

When I pray, it won’t be my timing, but His.

And when I pray for the moving of a mountain, it’ll be because God has already brought the earthmovers to the foothills.

Or am i just copping out? I’d love to know what others think about this.