buffet

File:Breakfast Buffet (21720094978).jpg

Imagine that you are staying at a hotel. Breakfast is included in the price you are paying and, after a good night’s sleep, you get ready for the day and head down to the restaurant where there is a wonderful breakfast buffet spread across lots of stations. You look at the wonderful variety of food on offer – cereal, many different types of bread and pastries, continental breakfast, fruit, yoghurt, cooked breakfast and more beside. Having looked at everything that is on offer you fill your plate from the delicious array of options and head back to your table. Your companion decides that they will just start with a piece of toast.

But that’s just the first visit to the buffet.

After you have finished you head back with an empty plate and indulge again from the wide selection and come back to your table. Your companion also returns from the buffet.

With another piece of toast.

You do this several times and each time your companion only has a piece of toast. Eventually you ask why they are only choosing toast from the wide range of food on offer.

Your companion thinks about it for a moment and then says, “It’s what I am used to.”

How do you feel?

Is our approach to prayer like your companion’s approach to the breakfast buffet? Do we limit ourselves to what we are used to? Is there more on offer for us to experience? Absolutely and there are some excellent books on prayer that these bloggages can never hope to emulate – God on Mute by Pete Greig and The Message of Prayer by Tim Chester are two that I have read and value.

I am going to look at prayer in the following categories over the next few bloggages: today it’s 999. Subsequent bloggages will look at prayer categories such as: is there anybody there?; Christmas list; sorry, wrestlemania; lament; praise; gratitude; chattitude; and listening

You could say they are are the official nukelearfishing prayer categorisations, but before you go diving in please note that there is nothing wrong with any of these. If I appear critical it’s only if that’s the toast we eat every time and we don’t expand our diet. What I am seeking to encourage is a much wider breadth of engagement with the whole variety of ways of praying. I am also hopefully not so arrogant that I expect to make this an all-inclusive list but hopefully it might encourage you to try some new items from the buffet…

999 (or 911 in USA)

Some people pray in a moment of crisis or when they feel out of their depth trying to invoke the help of a higher power to get them out of trouble rather like calling 999 to request the assistance of one of the emergency services.

These prayers can sometimes be freestanding or can sometimes be linked to a promise / bribe – ‘If you will help me then I will…’ – and can be generated by self-interest or self-preservation which is a motive that can lead to amnesia if the prayer is answered positively and the promise / bribe is forgotten.

Linked to these are prayers offered on behalf of someone else who is in peril. This can also be linked to a bribe / promise and the commitment to those is similar to above. This more altruistic approach to praying is nonetheless still relatively limited in scope and expectation beyond an immediate resolution of the problem.

Acceptable answers to these first 2 categories of prayer may often be limited to fulfilling the request in the desired manner and any deviation from that answer can be seen as evidence that the prayer was not answered or that the higher power was unwilling / unable to assist or does not exist at all. This un-nuanced approach to answers to prayer is to be expected when prayer is seen more as a call to an emergency service than the lifeblood of a relationship.

There is nothing wrong with praying in these circumstances but it’s a shame if the mustard seed of faith expressed here is not cultivated when the moment passes. They are moments of engaging with the Almighty and can be gateways towards faith, but if our expectations are limited to getting what we want the faith expressed may not be much more than the faith expressed when we put money into a vending machine and hope to get what we asked for. It’s a shallow faith and if it is not deepened is likely to lead to an abandonment of that faith at the first sign of disappointment.

Be blessed, be a blessing

sailing grace

If you’re more than an infrequent visitor here you will know that I own a 6 metre sailing yacht, based on a traditional America’s Cup yacht. Sorry, that should read I own a model 6 metre sailing yacht, based on a traditional America’s Cup yacht. There is a small (or should I say large) difference.

My yacht (I call her Charis because it means ‘Grace’ although she doesn’t have the name on her hull) is still big by model yacht standards. When fully rigged she is about 7′ (just over 2 metres) from the bottom of the keel to the top of the mast and she is about 5′ long (about 1.5 metres).

In case you don’t know about these things the only controls I have are for the rudder (which way to go) and how far to let out the sails (which controls speed and helps balance the boat in the wind). Sailing Charis by radio control is usually incredibly relaxing. She glides through the water and is incredibly responsive to the gentlest touches of the controls.

When I am sailing her I am trying to see how close I can sail to the wind, how cleanly I can go around a buoy in the lake, how fast I can make her go, and enjoying the sound of the waves lapping against her hull as she serenely slides past me.

But the other day I took Charis to one of my usual sailing lakes and I was unsure about whether even to take her out of the boot of my car. The weather forecast had said that the wind would be gentle, but it was much stronger than the forecast had said. In the end because I had driven for 25 minutes to get there I decided to give it a go. Perhaps the wind would be gentler down on the water.

The wind had been flapping the sails vigorously as I rigged the boat and I was still uneasy as I applied the finishing touches. I checked the boat slowly, making sure that I had everything ‘ship shape’ before picking her up and lowering her gently into the water.

Then, with a gentle shove from me, she slid off from the side of the lake and the wind caught her sails.

And she shot off! The wind was no calmer at the lakeside and Charis heeled over alarmingly as a gust caught her. I had to be very attentive on the controls and either correct with the rudder or let the sails out if she looked like she was going too far over.

Sailing downwind was not too bad as the sails were out fully and the boat was being driven down the lake. But tacking back up the lake was nerve-wracking with the strength of the wind and then sudden stronger gusts that threatened to capsize the boat.

Instead of finding the experience relaxing or exhilirating I found it stressful and could feel myself tensing up. After 5 minutes I decided to call it quits and brought the boat back to the side of the lake, picked her up out of the water and put her back on her stand to de-rig her.

I was disappointed – the experience had not been what I had hoped for. I was annoyed with myself- had I been more experienced I might have been able to cope more, but there was also the question about whether I should have listened to my first instinct and not taken the boat out of the boot.

Reflecting on that experience just now I wondered about coping in stormy seas. I know it wasn’t a stormy sea, but for the scale of boat I have and my level of experience it was too much. We can find ourselves in situations like that. Sometimes it’s because of a decision we have made, sometimes it’s because of circumstances outside our control.

So what do we do? Give up, pack up and go home? (That’s not always possible). Persevere and hope to survive? (Not enjoyable).

I reckon what I should have done is get someone who knew what they were doing to come and help me. Instead of working to the limits of my own experience and confidence I could have drawn on the experience and confidence of someone else*.

One of the blessings of being part of church is that there are usually people there who have experience of life beyond your own. There are people willing to accompany you on life’s journey. Sometimes they will just be there for you as you sail in the rough weather and whisper words of encouragement. Other times they may be able to help you out by temporarily taking the controls or telling you what you could do. And even just knowing that you are part of a supportive community is really a blessing: I have literally just received a text message from a Christian friend asking how I am doing!

Of course it’s not just churches that can offer this sort of thing. We find it in families and in friendships and other organisations and I hope you have that sort of support somewhere. But churches ought to be groups of people who do this instinctively. I would even suggest that if we don’t find it in a church that purports to be a free sample of Jesus (who told us that loving one another is right up there as a priority for life) then there’s something wrong.

Because life isn’t always plain sailing… be blessed, be a blessing

*I did wonder about doing this as there is a model shop in the town where I was sailing but I was unsure whether anyone would have helped from there. Perhaps I should have joined a model sailing club.

what Jesus forgot to say

Jesus face-planted as he realised what he forgot to say

I’ve been wondering recently whether Jesus forgot to say a few things. Did he stop too soon when he was saying the amazing things he was saying? I am only asking because, from what I can observe, it looks like we have worked out what he forgot to say…

I wonder, for example, when he was talking about taming the tongue he forgot to include the exception that you can be as offensive and insulting as you like on social media if you disagree with someone.

When he said that to be great you should consider yourself the servant of all, should he have gone on to say that this does not apply if you are in charge?

When he spoke of the Spirit of truth guiding us into all truth did he omit the bit about saying that it was alright to ignore truth if it was politically expedient?

When he said that we should not judge other people perhaps he forgot to say that it was okay to be judgmental if you are sufficiently sure that you are right.

When he said that we should take the plank out of our own eye before sorting out the speck of dust in someone else’s eye, did he neglect to mention that it’s okay to ignore the plank if you think other people haven’t noticed it, or to deny the plank’s existence if they do?

When he criticised religious people for neglecting justice, mercy and faithfulness did he forget to say that it’s okay to do it if the people affected were not born in your country?

When he was questioned about whether it was right to pay taxes and he said, “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” did he forget to say that it was okay not to pay tax if you could find a good loophole?

And when Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God wholeheartedly and the second is to love your neighbour as yourself is it correct that he forgot to say, “So long as they agree with you”?

Just wondering.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

motivation

I have a confession to make. I really dislike motivational posters. I know that lots of you will have found some of them helpful, and I am sure that there is a lot of wisdom on them, but there’s something about them that makes me shrink away from them.

Perhaps it’s the twee nature of some of them: “The only way to guarantee failure is never to try.”

Sometimes it’s the fact that they are blatantly untrue: “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.” (Can I really fly unaided if I think about it hard enough?)

Some of them could be heaping guilt on those who are struggling: “Excuses are for the weak!”

And some of them, (begrudgingly) are helpful@: “Stop being a critic. Start being a creator.”

And there’s the thing. While I will find some of these unhelpful, others will find them inspirational. They will be exactly what that person needs to receive at that time. So I am going to offer you a motivational poster of my own:

You see I have found that often when I have blessed other people (knowingly or unknowingly) the blessing has grown. It has grown by expressions of gratitude (this morning I was blessed by someone saying I had blessed them several years ago in something I had done as part of my job – that made me feel good too). It has grown as those who are blessed have shared that they felt blessed. It has grown as they are inspired to bless others. It has grown when I am encouraged to be more of a blessing because I can see the positive difference it has made to others.

And for any of you that want a Biblical mandate for this, how about the way that Abram and his descendants were blessed and through them the whole world would be blessed? (Genesis 12:1-3)

Don’t keep your blessings to yourself. Share them and watch them grow!

Be blessed, be a blessing

a parble*

The mouse scurried silently along the skirting board, undetected and unnoticed by anyone, including the fierce tabby tomcat that was sleeping on the sofa. The mouse’s family had lived in the house for many generations and, for the most part, had lived undisturbed. The mice were able to exist in the house because nobody knew they were there.

The mice knew that they had to be wary. They knew that a cat would take great delight in capturing any of them that it saw and tormenting them before finally extinguishing their tiny mouse life. It would then present the dead body to the humans. The humans though it was a sacrificial offering to show loyalty but in fact it was a warning that they could be next if they failed to provide for the cat!

Cats were bigger than mice, more powerful, had stronger jaws and sharper claws. They were terrifying and a constant threat.

But mice were small, nimble and could squeeze through impossibly small gaps. They existed in the spaces where the humans and cats never went. Occasionally, like today, they ventured swiftly into the human/cat space in order to forage for food or bedding. It was necessary but dangerous. The humans never really noticed that the mice had been there, although they did wonder about how the small holes appeared in blankets or how a box of biscuits had split and there seemed to be fewer biscuits in there than the humans remembered.

Cats had a strong suspicion that there were mice in the house. They often saw tiny shadows flitting in the corners of rooms but by the time they arrived there was nothing there. The areas where the mice lived smelt different to the cats and they kept a wary eye out for the little vermin.

But the little vermin knew that they would not be welcome in the realm of the humans and cats. They knew that the cats and humans would not understand that they believed they had a right to live peacefully. Of course the cats and humans didn’t really know why they didn’t like mice and would not accept them in their realm, they just instinctively knew that it was wrong.

And the mice continued to live in the walls and shadows.

Some reflections

In this parble the cats are the dominant big ideas in life. The ones that have been accepted for many years and remain unchallenged because they are so big and powerful.

Mice are radical, different ideas. How could they challenge the power of the big idea?

Why can’t the cats allow the mice to live in peace? Why do they have to try to extinguish them if they see them?

What would happen if the mice all appeared at once to try to change things?

Could the humans do anything to change the status quo? Would they want to?

What are the big, dominant ideas?

*yes, I know it’s ‘parable’ but as I have created other words on this blog (eg bloggage) I thought I could create another one – parble is a story with a message but which is not as powerful as the ones Jesus told.

news of the world

If you watch, listen to or read the news at the moment it can make for miserable reading. There’s hideous violence committed at individual, community and international levels. There’s devastating poverty that is affecting people, countries and whole regions of the world. There is hideous greed that is making a few rich at the expense of those who can least afford it. Environmental crises are breaking out across the globe with a seeming unwillingness to act from some of those who are most able to make a positive difference, preferring short term economic gain while sticking their fingers in their ears and ignoring the clamour for action. There is blatant racism, sexism and other prejudices that seem to be encouraged or at least not condemned at the highest level.

It’s not likely to lead us to a happy place is it? Even the ‘and finally’ lighthearted items on the news or the plethora of funny cat videos on the internet can’t lift the sense of gloom.

So what can we do?

Have another look at Psalm 23. You probably all know it, or have heard of it. Yes, that’s right: the Shepherd one.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever.

(NIVUK)

Most of us don’t have a lot of experience of shepherds, especially ancient near-Eastern ones, so what can this ancient piece of poetry do for us today?

First of all, recognise that an ancient near-Eastern shepherd was responsible for protecting the whole flock and providing for them. It wasn’t simply a question of leaving them out in a field, the flock would roam the countryside. And they would follow their shepherd who would go ahead of them (not driving them from behind as in the UK), listening for his voice and trusting him because he had provided for them in the past. No sheepdogs were needed because the shepherd was trusted and known. David, who wrote this psalm, had experience of this as he had been a shepherd, and that was one of the ways in which he experienced God – someone he knew, whom he trusted, whom he was willing to follow, whose voice he knew.

Green pastures are always good places if you are a herbivore. It’s easy food and provides the nutrients that are needed. In the ancient near-East green pastures would have been at a premium, bearing in mind that it was/is a hot climate. Much of the land would be dry scrubland with not so much to eat, so if a sheep found theirself led to a green pasture it was bliss , especially if there was also a source of cool water there. If you have been in the hot Mediterranean sun you would be refreshed and feel restored at such places. When we find ourselves in green pastures or beside still, refreshing waters we should not forget to give thanks to the one who has led us there. We should find ways that our soul is restored – what works for you?

The shepherd would know the local terrain and would know which were the paths to follow. Some might be difficult but they would go to the right destination. Here ‘right paths’ doesn’t just mean those that go to the right places, however, it also refers to ‘righteousness’ or ‘faithfulness’ and means that the flock benefits from the shepherd’s faithfulness. ‘For his name’s sake’ means that God acts consistently with his character. There are many names given to God in the Old Testament and all of them reflect something of his character. Even referring to him as ‘The Lord’ as David does at the beginning of the Psalm is bigger than we imagine. The word in Hebrew is YHWH – the Hebrew word for God that was originally unpronounceable because there were no vowels but is now sometimes pronounced ‘Yahweh’. It derives from the Hebrew for ‘I am’ and reminds us of the eternal nature of God, the existence of God, the constancy of God, the self-sufficiency of God and so much more. That’s the One who’s our shepherd!

Following the shepherd does not mean that we’ll always be in green pastures and beside still waters. There are times when we go through the darkest valley (the valley of the shadow of death). We all know that to be true even though we hate to admit it. The difference for those who follow the shepherd is that they know he is with them as they travel through that dark valley. They may be frightened, worried, anxious or even terrified of what is in the shadows, but they know that the shepherd is there with them and is committed to them. You’re not alone if you don’t want to be.

The psalm abruptly changes from a pastoral metaphor to a banquet scene. There’s a celebration, a meal in our honour, and we will be vindicated in the sight of those who have opposed us. The host is generous to us and honours us. Did you notice too how the language changes from an impersonal third person (‘he’) to a personal second person (‘you’). This is not a theoretical expression of faith, it’s a personal relationship with YHWH. God’s care for us is genuine: not just a story of a shepherd but an experience of love, care, honour and justification.

And there’s an eternal dimension to this that can never be taken away from us.

Add to that what Jesus said about being the Good Shepherd and it becomes spectacular!

None of this changes the news. But it may help us look at it differently knowing that YHWH is leading us, with us, for us and we are his eternally.

Be blessed, be a blessing

honouring

Those of you who have read previous bloggages of mine may get the impression that I am not the greatest advocate of our current government’s policies and approach. You may well be correct. I did not greet yesterday’s news that Boris Johnson has been elected as leader of the Conservative Party (and hence going to be the new Prime Minister*) with any sense of joy.

And now I am torn. Because although my political views are at odds with our government there is also a strong mandate in the Bible for Christians to pray for those in government and, so far as there is no conflict with my faith, to remain a good citizen of my country, I can do that. Heaven knows that our country is greatly in need of those prayers!

And I have to accept that, however much I disagree with the current government and however much I am astonished or dismayed at the choice of the new Prime Minister, I am supposed to honour them.

Really.

1 Peter 2:17: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”

This picture is about honour – the paper is ‘on her’. (Yes, I can hear you groaning!)

Honour is difficult. It is often something that we feel should be deserved or earnt. But in the Bible it is (usually relating to God, but also to parents and others) something that is due because of who the person is and the role they fulfil.

So if I am meant to honour the emperor, what does that mean? I think it means that I am to honour the office, the role, and the task. It means that I should be respectful of those who have the incredibly difficult job of leading this fractured country, whether or not I support their policies. It means that I should be praying for them, especially if I disagree with them. And it means I will try not to make derogatory comments on social media, or ‘liking them’ no matter how much I may agree with them or find them amusing. To do so dishonours those who are our leaders.

But let’s be clear about this: praying for and honouring does not mean endorsing. Being a good citizen does not mean acquiescing when I believe that something is wrong. Doing those things does not mean that I support the government. It does not mean that I cannot protest against injustice and campaign for the poor and marginalised. It does not mean I can’t write to my MP about issues that concern me (I am not sure whether I am on his blacklist now after all the letters I have written).

So don’t expect me to keep quiet about what I believe is wrong, but do expect me to be respectful, prayerful and honouring in the process.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Rant warning: please can we remember that Prime Minister is two words. It irritates me no end when it is reduced to Pry-Minister by lazy reporters on the telly. Harrumph.