How to vote, but not which way

FB_20160616_12_28_13_Saved_PictureLast Sunday we were thinking about the celebrations of the Queen’s 90th birthday, and also looking at 2 passages from the Bible- one in Luke chapter 7 verse 36- 8:3 and the other in Galatians 2:15-21. As well as this I wanted to respond to some questions I’d been asked about the referendum, but without telling people which box to tick… so this is what I ended up writing. If you prefer to listen, go here.

In the days since last Sunday I’ve been reading and thinking more, and have concluded that I’m going to write a post about which way I’m choosing to vote and how I’ve come to that conclusion… hopefully that will be up tomorrow.

So, last weekend:

Very often when we look at someone else’s position in life, we see their rights and privileges, but when we look to our own lives, we see our responsibilities and burdens- we look at the Queen and we see palaces, the largest personal fortune in the country and more outfits than you can count… we don’t see the 40hr working week of a 90yr old pensioner, the lack of privacy for someone who is not a natural extrovert, the framework of ‘how things must be done’ that hold her in place as much as allow her to influence others. We look at our own lives and see the hard work, the health and financial worries, we feel that no one listens to us and that we deserve more… how rarely do we consider the simple truths that having spare change in your pocket and taps with clean water, access to a car and a roof over our heads puts us in the top 20% of the richest and most privileged people in the world. The fact that we live in a society where men and women have the vote without having to prove their ‘right’ to vote, where sexism and racism are recognised as problems even though they still exist… that we have so much time that most of us can choose between leisure activities rather than simply work then sleep…

The Bible passages that we have heard this morning both speak of privilege, and of what it means to forget what that word means…

The Jews of Paul’s time understood themselves as being God’s chosen people- on a good day that meant to be chosen to bring God’s blessing to the whole world, in a world where everyone had their own gods and it was safest to worship them all, to proclaim through their words and lives that there is one God who is worthy of worship, and all others are nothing compared to him. On a good day. On a bad day that knowledge turned to arrogance and the desire for serving God turned to an abhorrence of the rest of the world- looking down on everyone who wasn’t one of ‘us’… As Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner implied- If Jesus knew what sort of a woman was washing his feet he wouldn’t let her touch him… Jesus’ response highlights the risk that faces all of us who have any kind of privilege- that we can forget what we have been given, and that it has usually come to us undeserved- God chose the people of Israel, not the other way around, and not because of what they already were, but because of what God would help them become… and Jesus could, and so frequently did as we see here, choose to go beyond that- to extend the kingdom of God into the lives of people he met with the words ‘your sins are forgiven’.  If we don’t recognise the need we all have for forgiveness we can easily forget what a wonderful gift that was for her, and what a wonderful gift it is for us. Similarly an ‘accident of birth’ makes one person royalty while another is a refugee. This month many people are taking part in celebrations of the Queen’s 90th birthday, while a great amount of energy is also being spent discussing the forthcoming referendum, and in the background, all the while, the homeless are struggling to carry on in our own nations and refugees are risking their lives to cross borders and the sea.  Life as a refugee is worth the risk- not because our benefits are so great but because what they have left is so bad. A life of faith is worth it, not because every single day is paradise but because life without God is meaningless. [BT only- As her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II once said- ‘I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning… I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.’ There are some here who are great lovers of the Queen and the Royal Family, others are less so- I’m not trying to cause offense or convert you to a different viewpoint on the Queen, but she does seem to stand as someone who has so much, and uses it for good. She could quite easily have been a caricature queen- something ridiculous in a modern age. But because of how she has held herself, how she has been herself her life and her faith have been taken seriously.]

Our passage from Galatians takes up this point- We are justified- made right with God, by our faith, not by our birthright… its not about where you’re born but how you live- Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles- the one group born with a sense that they are God’s people, the other discovering that they can become God’s children. One group justified by their adherence to the laws that have come down through their culture- the laws of Moses given to him by God and developed over the years into a full legal system that could answer every question of what was right or wrong, the other justified by their adherence to Christ Jesus and him alone.

This passage within Galatians has parallels in Romans, where Paul similarly argues that the law doesn’t bring salvation or righteousness, but an awareness of sin… a structure isn’t necessarily the solution to a problem but is a first step towards finding a solution. The structure helps, as a means to an end, but its not the end in itself. Realising that we are still sinners while we are seeking to be justified in Christ- that’s another way of saying ‘doing our best but still messing up’, and Paul, in this passage is quite clear that a)that doesn’t mean sin is ok, but equally b)that there is still grace and forgiveness… we are seeking this, we’ve not yet arrived… the church and all of us within it, is not yet perfect… but it is the means that God has chosen to share the message of his grace and love with the world.

I’ve been asked by several people in our church and elsewhere to share some reflections on the approaching referendum. And I’ve been quite hesitant to do so, because I believe quite strongly in the responsibility and the privilege of the democratic process- we each have the right to make our own decision, to come to our own conclusion, and to vote as we choose. But my preparation for today, and the amount of material I read on both sides of the argument has brought me to the point where I feel it is right for me to speak on this. I do not want to tell you how to vote, but maybe to encourage you in how to think about this, as Christians, as people who take our privilege and our responsibility seriously. Some of us are staunchly committed to voting one way or another on 23rd June, I don’t want to cause offense to any of you. The church nationally has no public stance- the Archbishop of York has made his intention clear, while the Archbishop of Canterbury, though commenting strongly on the comments of Nigel Farage has refused to say whether he’ll vote in or out (note: in between my writing and preaching this, he publicly stated his intention to vote remain).  In reality this is no different from how we, as Christians, should approach any significant decision- whether something in our own lives or in the shared life of our community and nation. Because of Christ’s death on the cross, our understanding of the world is changed- compassion for the weak, kindness to strangers, and love for the natural environment are not peripheral interests but guiding principles… they are how we live out the gospel in our daily lives and so they should inform our decisions. So we need to ask ourselves how does my vote show compassion for the week, kindness to strangers and love for the natural environment… and, and this is the big question… how do I know that?

There’s been a lot of talk about the economy and finance… both sides making similar claims… and both missing the point- Money is not everything.

There’s been people weighing in with their views, claiming expert knowledge one way or another… and we need to be wise to the fact that politicians and businesses always have a vested interest.

There’s been pretty pictures and lies, damn lies and statistics… we know that a picture and a graph can be made to say anything.

But, there is one thing on which I am certain- we have this responsibility. We have the privilege of making this decision. And we have to make it. If we don’t, others will, and we will be bound by their decision, for good or ill.

When you leave today you’ll probably remember the last few minutes more than the whole of the rest of this service… if I’ve made you think about how you vote, then I’m happy, but that pales into insignificance next to the decision, the vote, that we each of us make when we respond to Jesus- when we become made right with God by faith in him- when we hear those words ‘your sins are forgiven’ and know that they are said for us.


A brief call… from Thomas the tank engine

Yesterday morning at our all-ages service we were thinking about how Jesus used stories really powerfully to engage with people of all ages and backgrounds, and we used the themes and imagery of the Thomas stories (originally written by a vicar for his children) to help us with our thinking… led by the fat controller after he’d been to weightwatchers we thought about what rules and regulations we need to avoid ‘chaos and confusion’ and to help us all to be ‘really useful engines’…

Earlier in the morning at our 8am service I’d been reflecting on the passage at the start of Paul’s letter to the Galatian church where he writes about his own background- he gives his biography in order to establish, to a degree, his credentials. The only problem is that he basically says ‘no one recommended me- not the apostles, not the other Christians… they just knew me as the man who was trying to destroy the churches…’ but then goes on to say (and I paraphrase brutally) that he was called by God and given the gospel by God… so we were thinking about the call that God gave to Paul, and the call that God makes to each of us… not to be apostles to south Turkey and Syria, though that’s possible and very much needed, but to be us- God calls each of us to be ourselves, in the places where we are, with the gifts and network of friends that we have…  And the fact of our faith- that some of us believe in God while others don’t, is the first evidence of our response to that call…

So the questions we are faced by are whether we recognise that we’re called (or to use the language of our all ages service, that we’re one of the Engines), and if we recognise that in principle, then what does it mean in practice… how will we be Useful?

The Bug in the Rug- a different perspective might have made all the difference to Job

So this week we’re having some more on the book of Job, and I found it really hard to write this talk- its difficult to be partway through a conversation/series about suffering and where we see God, without trying to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Of course, the ridiculous thing is that that is EXACTLY where we find ourselves most of the time in life- we rarely look ahead and have time to consider the unknown problems that lie ahead of us, and once we’ve come through something traumatic we’re unlikely to spend much time looking back at it… most of the time we’re sitting in the middle of the muddle, in the pit of pain or the ditch of despair (I could go on, but I won’t). What’s annoying me right now is that while I was in the middle of trying to write the talk, I didn’t think of writing about how hard it is to be in the middle of something… I guess I didn’t have my perspective quite set up right- which is, in the end, what I spent most of my time talking about.

In the talk I made reference to the story of the bug in the rug, which I first heard almost 20yrs ago- I assumed it was a fairly broadly known tale, and have used it on occasions since then to talk about perspective and hope. What I only just discovered was that the source I had- a techno-ambient track named Hex from a Coldcut album had taken it from a 1950’s US motivational speaker’s live recordings. Its not an aboriginal or hindu or native american tale… which is possibly why so few people have heard of it… still, its great and worth finding on the internet if you haven’t heard of it-  you can listen to it here.

And as for the rest of what I said, it slightly resembled this:

The two passages today come from very different places- Jesus teaching on the one hand, and the words of one of Job’s comforters on the other… but they both raise the question of what is important to us- what are our priorities… We’ve a few readings from Job this month, that take us through some of the important themes of the book- those of suffering, perseverance, but it also takes the idea of lament which is found in some of the Psalms and extends it further- no other book of the Bible contains so much complaint and accusation- both against Job by his friends, and by Job against God…

A brief introduction to Job for those who weren’t here or have forgotten- its part of the wisdom literature, the context of the book is that of an exploration into how suffering fits within our understanding of life and its structure- the cycle of dialogues… Job as part of the wisdom literature (which means…); Job as potentially a literary construct rather than real life experience; the dialogue of comments between Job and his friends. Each of them presents their viewpoint and attempts to squash Job to fit what they think… and none of them, including Job are entirely correct.

Job’s view in this passage: If only I could find God I’d be able to make my case, and if he heard me he would concede that I have been wronged… but at the same time Job knows the power and might of God… he knows and has experienced being in God’s presence, and no he finds himself distant from God.  We might suggest, as Job’s friend Eliphaz does, that its because of his failings- possibly some sin he will not repent from or something he’s not aware of… But Job knows that its not that- God has moved away from him. He, like Jesus, could call out to the skies ‘My God, why have you abandoned me?’ When we feel that God is far from us- sometimes further or absent completely… Job is verging towards self-justification before God, which is another way of suggesting that he’s going to give God a proper telling off… and that’s surely not a good plan.

Looking at Mark’s Gospel further ahead from today’s passage, in the case of Jesus, we know that his suffering on the cross was to bring together and deal with the sin of all mankind, and that God’s withdrawal- a father withholding his saving power right at the moment when the son is most in need, that is part of it all. And we also see that, although Jesus’ suffering and isolation were real, he also knew and understand, and chose the way of the cross… but when we don’t feel the presence of God, why is that?

While Job wants to make his complaint to God- to enter into God’s presence to challenge God about how he has been treated… sometimes we may have that desire, or sometimes we may want to be closer to God to feel his love, or for help with decisions… experiential love is good, but its not everything…

In Chapter 2 of Job he speaks with his wife, saying ‘Will we only accept Good things from God, and not bad?’ Or to put it another way, will we accept the good things we have without recognising they come from God, and then blame him for the bad things? The first is the mistake that the young man in Mark’s Gospel makes, and the second is what Job speaks about… the question of suffering and the existence of a good God…

Perspectives- the bug in the rug- you know the story by now?

And if you’re wondering, this wasn’t recorded, but a member of our team did preach on the same passage at our main service, and you can hear Richard’s talk here

The team just got bigger- if they want in, they’re in…

In chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel, we get some of the most misquoted words of Jesus that we’ll find anywhere… the whole ‘if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out’ bit has been used and abused by all sorts of people, particularly grisly monsters in the horror genre (of these, Judge Dredd’s encounter with the Sisters of Death in the 2000AD saga Dead Man/Necropolis has to rank highest for me, but then I’m British and was growing up in the 1980’s, and that has nothing to do with today, so I’m not going to post a link here to the wikipedia article on them).

Alongside this passage, we had the final part of James’ letter to consider in our morning worship… James is a blunt, challenging piece of writing, so what would he have to say about prayer?

Anyway, if you read these two passages, Mark 9.38-50 and James 5.13-20 you’ll probably have many questions that aren’t addressed in the text below, but here goes:

In this passage from Mark’s Gospel Jesus is giving some clear commands to his disciples, in response to John’s genuine question about someone outside their group who seems to be using Jesus’ authority… He’s not one of us, should that be allowed?

Do not stop him- be united with those outside your immediate group

Do not tell him what to do- be supportive of those who do things differently

Jesus then goes on to warn the disciples about the risks they face- this is spiritual warfare and there will be casualties… in your teaching of little ones- whether young in age or faith… be careful to teach them all they need and not shirk from the task… in your personal holiness- don’t lie to yourself, don’t let your left hand undo all the good that your right hand does… most of us would agree that Jesus is, in this point, speaking figuratively rather than literally… but we actually find it hard enough to even listen at that level- what behaviour do we willingly change because we know it damages our relationship with God? Answer- not much

And then this section closes with a reminder of where this started- Be at peace with one another- harking back both to the question that started this off, and also the preceding passage where the disciples argue about who is the greatest…

But why? What is the point of all these things?

James (who may have been one of the 12 and if so was the one who had serious issues with jockeying for position) reminds us in the closing verse of his letter- whoever turns a sinner back to God saves him from death… We need to be getting our priorities straight…

We’re not in disagreement for the sake of arguing- church isn’t a debating society

We’re not in unity for the sake of a quiet life- church isn’t about uniformity or ticking the boxes

We’re in the business of making a difference- miracles, healings, transformed lives all those happen, not every day but prayers in faith have power… relationships amongst us and with others… prayer for others, with others…

The purpose of the church is to make known in the world the glory and power of God, that the world might hear, understand and be saved…

We can be in unity doing that; we can be in disagreement about how to do that; but we are to do that… if we, in this village, want to make God’s love known to the members of the community, we need to accept that we will disagree, but to know that whoever is not against us is for us- the Methodist church is for us, the Gospel Hall is for us, residents in the village who worship in Umberleigh, Barnstaple, Torrington or wherever else… if they are part of God’s church, then they are for us. And our disagreements come secondary to our unity.

So how to be in unity- Prayer is the first and greatest way. If I ask you to pray for me, then I trust you. If you ask me to pray for you, likewise. If we pray together for our neighbours and the village, then we trust each other… and so on. The first and greatest thing we can do, is to pray together for our community. The second Saturday of each month we gather to pray here at 9.30. If that’s no use to you, the church is open every day, all day- gather at a time that suits you. If you’d rather pray elsewhere, do so, if you like to pray during the week in the context of worship, come to the joint prayer and communion service each Thursday morning… there is no right time of the day, no special location… just pray. When we pray for things that we’re excited about, when we pray for things we’re not so sure about, that intentional bringing a situation and the people before God… it brings us closer together.

Secondly- to remember our calling. We exist for the sake of the world. Not for the sake of the church. This building was not built for us to rest in, but for the world to be rescued by- over the years many churches have become more like clubs, museums and ? but we should rather think of ourselves as lifeboat stations, fuelling stops and hospitals…

Hospitals- to care for the vulnerable, those who need healing…

Fuelling stations- to prepare for the journey, a top up or a refill…

Lifeboat stations- if we had to pick just one… the purpose of the church is to rescue those who are in peril… everything else flows from that, everything serves that purpose… our discussions about worship styles, preferred seating options- the disciples talking about who was the greatest or whether anyone else could heal in Jesus’ name… we have to keep our priorities as our priorities.

The whole lifeboats thing has been significant for me over the last few years- since spending some time with the folks at St Andrew’s church in Chorleywood I’ve found it a recurring and powerful image. If your situation is far from the sea, then it may not resonate with you, but I wonder what would?

Readings from St John’s Revelation- is the fall of Satan the spiritual naughty step or due legal process?

This week we’ve been looking at part of Revelation in our daily Bible readings- and it was from one of the more complex parts of the book (yes, there are less complex parts). Today we were looking at Revelation chapter 12, which has John’s vision of a war in heaven, and the casting down of the dragon to the earth, and the ensuing struggle on earth as the dragon vents its fury…

Its fairly clear (because it says it) that we’re meant to understand the dragon to be the Devil- and that this not the vaguely amusing pointy-tailed devil or the version played out in various Hollywood films, but the horrific expression of evil that plans the murder of new born children and the destruction of all that is good. The specific new born child mentioned is also named as Jesus (the Christ) so that helps us too. Is the mother of the child Mary or a figurative Israel and the other offspring are the Church? Maybe, but that’s not what’s got my braincells in a twist today…

The questions I’m left with are more along the lines of ‘so what does this mean today?’ and ‘so what does this tell me about life?’

First up, despite all the visual imagery and any interpretations that we may choose to read into them or take from them- and all of us do that without even noticing it, the clear outcome is the defeat of evil by God in the heavenly realms, but that there is still an ongoing struggle around us in the world we live in. In other words, on one front the victory has been won, but its still unclear exactly how things will pan out here and whether we’ll be home in time for Christmas or not.  As we look around the world its pretty hard to say that the world looks like a place where the kingdom of God has won the victory- at best its a piecemeal tapestry of hurt and healing, but the encouragement for us is that the overall victory has been won- the story is ultimately Good News.

Secondly, the way that we can read of the Devil’s defeat being in stages points towards something about how life works… but what? We were talking about this in a small group this morning, and I wanted to share the thoughts that came up…

Just to recap: theres a war in heaven; the Devil and his forces are defeated by the angels, they are thrown down from Heaven and spend time here on earth causing trouble. Later on (in a few chapters time) they will be judged for all they’ve done and destroyed (at least, thats my interpretation of what happens when something is put into a lake of lava- having watched Terminator 2 and Lord of the Rings as well as David Attenborough in the Natural World… longterm torment it ain’t).

But why the stop on the way down? What is God and the army of heaven up to in allowing the Devil to stop off on earth and torment, attack and trouble people further?

One answer we looked at is whether this is a case of due process- its how things have to work. Just as things take time and go through phases, this is a process that takes time- Jesus had to come to earth to bring salvation to earth; it couldn’t be done from heaven. When we decide to move house there is a process that takes time, and various parts of it are stressful etc… but they can’t be avoided. This makes some sense to me.

An alternative which was put forward was that the period when the Devil is on earth (whether in the past, continuing now at the present or in the future) is in some way a final chance for the Devil, and all his forces to repent- to turn from their rebellion and seek forgiveness from God… Is the earth the Devil’s last chance to sit and think about what’s been going on before a final judgement is made? This fits really well with how we see God treating us, and what we know we each need, and it also jars- just we struggle to accept that God will forgive ‘them’ whoever they are, its a struggle to consider that God could forgive the father of all lies… but it might just be true… If so, what does the ending of John’s vision mean? the picture of the devil’s destruction- is it a warning of what might happen, or a description of an unavoidable future? Its at this point that my head begins to hurt, so I think I’ll leave it there for now!

Christian Mindfullness- contemplative prayer at the end of the week

Last Sunday evening we had a slightly different time in church- there was no organ or worship band, nor even a CD or ipod. On arrival the small group of us sat facing the back rather than the front, and when we started there were no notices… what is going on?

We were gathered for our monthly time of worship and prayer, where we’ve been learning some new songs and praying together, often in ways that allow us to be more vulnerable and be more supported than is often the case in our gathered times. On this occasion, however, I wanted to try using some of the ideas around mindfulness, but from a Christian perspective, which has been described by Shaun Lambert appropriately as ‘mindfullness’- not just being aware of what is going on in your head and life, but also filling yourself with God as you do so and orienting your thoughts and actions in response to what you see of God.

This was fairly new to me, and not something I’d led before, so we were all doing something new together- and to honest I was quite glad that only a few folks had come along! But it seemed to go well, and we’ll do it, or something similar, again in the near future. The reason, BTW, that we were facing the back of the church is that we used the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke chapter 10 as something to aid our thinking, and we’ve got a large stained glass window depicting that parable a the back of the church…


Mindfulness- consciously stopping to observe and become aware of our thoughts and feelings, in order to move from a place where they control our actions and lives to a place where we are mindful of our intentions- living and acting proactively rather than reactively.

Contemplative prayer, coming into the presence of God, losing ourselves in worship, Lectio Divina and other Christian traditions all use this same idea, and it is based on things we see Jesus doing and the NT church practising.

It is similar to secular and Buddhist mindfulness in the same way that all chairs are things to sit on, but they are not the same chair- each form of mindfulness has its own structure and intention, but they share some commonalities.

Why specific Christian mindfulness? Because as Christians we want our intentions to be informed by and sustained by God’s love and will for our lives rather than anything else.

What can mindfulness do? Help us pray, help reduce anxiety and stress, help us to perceive God in the world, help us to live as Christians… or none of them if we choose not to…

What are the pitfalls? Mindfullness isn’t Christianity, it doesn’t replace being part of a church or following Jesus- it’s a useful tool, not the end goal

Some main points:

Being aware of your Body

Observing your thoughts, body and feelings

Accepting them and being Aware of them more fully

Adopting a Compassionate attitude towards ourself and the world- non-judgmental and forgiving

COAL as mnemonic for Bible reading: Curiosity, Openness, Attentively, Living it out

Others like to talk about Lectio Divina… at its heart is reading the Bible so that its truth enters into you rather than you trying to make it fit your truth…

Luke 10.25-38- Parable of the good Samaritan…

I’ll read the passage, then we’ll have some quiet while we each allow it to speak to us- you’ll want to have a Bible to hand, and be sitting somewhere where you can comfortably read, or look at the window…

During the quiet I’ll give a few invitations to how you might like to progress your thoughts

As our time draws to a close we’ll take the opportunity to put down anything- both in terms of things you need to release and let go of, and also to put down on paper any thoughts that you need to retain and reflect on further.

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.

Being a forgiving sort of person

An interview with one of my favourite writers, on one of my favourite blogs, with reference to one of my favourite groups of Christians… what can I do apart from share it with you-

If you’ve not found Malcolm Gladwell yet, you ought to (thanks to my brother-in-law who’s been mentioning him to me for several years now), and you also ought to check out Bryan Patterson’s blog here too.  And if you know nothing about the Mennonites, then go do your homework (any group of Christians who’ve gone through what they did is worth respecting, and when their foremost theologian is called John Yoder… well). Anyway, here’s the article:

Preaching Without Words

Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of such bestsellers as Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, last year spoke out publicly about his own rediscovery of faith. He credits a visit with a Mennonite couple in Winnipeg, Canada, who lost their 13-year-old daughter to a sexual predator. After the largest manhunt in the city’s history, police officers found the teenager’s body in a shed, frozen, her hands and feet bound; it took them twenty-two years to arrest and prosecute the suspected killer.

At a news conference just after the girl’s funeral her father said, “We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.” The mother added, “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” stressing the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to,” she added. [Afterward, Wilma Derksen became a Forgiveness Therapist, and outlines her approach in a moving TED talk:

The response of this couple, so different from a normal response of rage and revenge, pulled Gladwell back toward his own Mennonite roots. As he told Relevant magazine, “Something happened to me when I sat in Wilma Derksen’s garden. It is one thing to read in a history book about people empowered by their faith. But it is quite another to meet an otherwise very ordinary person, in the backyard of a very ordinary house, who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary. Their daughter was murdered. And the first thing the Derksens did was to stand up at the press conference and talk about the path to forgiveness.”

Gladwell found other instances of ordinary Christians who acted in extraordinary ways, such as the Protestants in rural France who sheltered Jews during Nazi occupation. He adds, “Maybe we have difficulty seeing the weapons of the spirit because we don’t know where to look, or because we are distracted by the louder claims of material advantage. But I’ve seen them now, and I will never be the same.”

More on the subject from Philip Yancey

now may we go and be challenged to do the same.

choices choices… to love or not to love…

11yrs ago I chose to love… what I mean by that is that I chose to acknowledge that the feelings in my heart were consistent with what I understood love to be, and then I chose to externalise those feelings- I told someone that I loved them, and that I would like them to consider spending the rest of their life in close enough proximity to me, and in a formalised relationship that we might live together and be married to each other.

Fortunately for me I didn’t use any of those exact words, and my girlfriend at the time (who was a modern languages teacher) understood what I was trying to express. And we married each other. And we chose to love each other every day, and we still do. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Almost 8yrs ago I found myself loving again… this time with no conscious decision. Its possible that the sleep deprivation had something to do with it, or hormones or whatever. But when my daughter popped into the world she also popped into my heart, and she has stayed there forever. I didn’t make a choice, and I never felt like that was an option. Interestingly, her appearance in my heart didn’t exclude my wife- somehow my heart had room for them both. And for our second and third children as they’ve appeared over the years… but I never chose to love them. I just did, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells his followers to love their neighbours, and in this passage in Matthew 5, to love their enemies… one is easy, the other much harder. It’s really easy to go out of your way and do things to help people you like, people you have stuff in common with, people who’ve been there for you and you know will be in the future. It’s not so easy to do the same for those who you disagree with, who have put you down or make you feel weak, who know the buttons to push and do so… But that is the measure of great love- Love the ones you find it hard to. Put yourselves out for the idiot or the pain in the neck. Keep on opening the door… one day they may walk through it without laughing at you… And in the meantime, you are showing them unconditional love- you’re showing that they don’t have to earn your regard, in fact that they can’t. You’re showing the kind of love that God has shown…

For God so loved the world (that he had brought into being)

that has sent his one and only Son (who was willing to go)

so that anyone who believed in him (not just his existence but his life)

would not die (not in the final ending of all life way that we fear and shy away from)

but have eternal life (I don’t quite know what that means, but I like the sound of it).

So today I choose love. I choose to love those around me, whatever may come.

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.