Middle-Eastenders

Do you know about the book of Esther in the Bible? It’s peculiar because God is not mentioned by name, but like a toddler who has got hold of a tub of chocolate spread his fingerprints are everywhere. And the book is controversial because it is a narrative about slavery, racism and power in which what has been portrayed as a beauty contest is held to find a tyrant King a new wife and Esther, a young Jewish woman who was in Persia against her will, was selected. Was it a beauty contest when Esther didn’t have any choice, or was it something far more sinister?

Themain plot in the narrative is that the Prime Minister, Haman, decides to carry out what a genocide against the Jews who were in exile in Persia and Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, hears of the plot and persuades Esther to intervene with the King. It’s a bit like a soap opera as there is intrigue, suspense and feuding.

Image result for Xerxes I

Last week I was asked to preach on Esther 5, which is one of the key chapters in the narrative where Esther makes the first approach to the King. I called it ‘Middle-Eastenders’ as there are certainly some ‘duff-duff-duff’ drum moments! I’d encourage you to read the whole book so you get the context (it’s not very long). Here are some of my reflections:

Esther was gentle: she was not seeking status but was looking to see how she could be used where she was. We can even say that she was close to God because she fasted for 3 days before going to see the king.  

She was wise – recognising that if she jumped right in with a complaint against the Prime Minister when she was in a vulnerable position (not even sure if the King would want to see her) then she may not succeed in saving her people. She offered to serve the king (inviting him and Haman to a banquet) rather than demanding her rights.

And she was patient. It would have been very tempting to her when the king offered to be generous to her to jump right in with her main request, but she knew that the time was not right and just asked for him to attend another banquet.

I wonder who the people are who hold power over you? Of course, there are politicians who can make decisions that will affect our life, but there are also officials whose decisions affect us, perhaps when we are seeking benefits. We are subject to the authority of the police and law-enforcement agencies. And what about those who are above us at work? Or even those to whom we have given authority in our homes like a landlord?

And there is also power in a church. In Baptist churches, because we say that everyone is a minister, sometimes people seem to have made a virtue out of disrespecting and tearing down those whom God has appointed to lead us.

Esther’s example is not a blueprint, but I think we can learn that deference and respect, patience and wisdom are important and can bear fruit.

On the other hand, Haman saw power as something to be used to benefit himself: we can see from this passage that he was self-centred, focused on his own wealth and importance. He was indignant towards Mordecai when he was not given the honour that he felt he deserved. He didn’t realise that honour is not something to be demanded – that is bullying and fear – it is something you earn.

He was willing to misuse his power for his own ends. His decision to impale Mordecai on a big spike (some versions say it was gallows, but that’s not quite right) was his way of trying to make himself feel better. He did not value others, he just wanted people to look up to him. I wonder about his petulant response to Mordecai, it’s almost the actions of a playground bully. Mordecai’s non-reaction to him made him feel small so he decided to act big to make up for it.

How important is it how other people regard us? How far are we willing to go to obtain the respect? Are there lines we won’t cross, or does anything go in our desire for power? Do we ever look for a leadership role to elevate our status rather than lead by serving?

And at the risk of getting all political, consider when you look at the current candidates for PM role are they more like Esther or Haman?

armour-plated praying

This bloggage was first written as a ‘Thought for the week’ sent to all of the ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association…

Isn’t it interesting how easily we can overlook things? I have recently been reminded that when reading the New Testament letters it is important to  remember whether they were written to an individual or to a whole church. That can help us apply and unpack what is being said in revealing ways. (It doesn’t mean, of course, that God won’t speak to an individual through a ‘church’ letter or a church through an ‘individual letter’).

This Sunday I am preaching on Ephesians 6 – the armour of God.

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

I know that I have often applied this individually to myself and to others as a guide for how to protect oneself spiritually. But when you consider that the letter to the Ephesians was written to a whole church the passage takes on a different tone. If you think about it, one soldier on their own is not going to last long in a battle. It’s only when soldiers are together in a platoon, a company or battalion that they are effective. Paul’s injunction to put on the armour of God is for all of us so that we may be effective together. Roman soldiers were an extremely powerful force when they locked their shields together and stood side by side or when they moved forwards together – look at how far the Empire extended!

Ephesians 6:10-20 is about prayer. Verse 18 begins with the conjunction ‘and’ which means it is a continuation of the preceding thoughts. There’s no doubt in my mind that the last three verses are another way of saying the same thing as the preceding seven. Pray together, pray for each other. Did you notice how many times in the passage the word ‘stand’ or phrase ‘stand firm’ is mentioned? It comes four times in just four verses. One of the main reasons for us to pray for one another is to enable each other to stand firm. Wobbly Christians don’t last very long so it is important that we are able to stand firm together and we need the prayers of others to help us. Pray that we (collectively) may be a people of truth, righteousness, good news, faith, salvation and the word of God.

And this is one of the reasons why I lament the demise of corporate prayer in our churches. How can we expect to stand firm as followers of Jesus if we are not praying together and praying for one another regularly? How can we expect to be a spiritually strong unit together if we are not collectively listening for our Commander-in-Chief’s orders? How can we expect to make an impact on the communities we serve if our armour is uncared for, rusty and falling apart?

If any of you have found ways that help your church to pray together I would love to hear from you. if you don’t mind I would like to compile them and put them on our website as a resource to help.

And of course we are part of a bigger movement – the Church. We are encouraging all of us to join in with the Thy Kingdom Come movement leading up to this Pentecost. You can find plenty of resources here: https://www.thykingdomcome.global/ And we will be inviting you all to join in with another Wave of Prayer in the weeks leading up to our Gathering (which will be on September 28th at Billericay Baptist Church). And we are blessed to see how many of you pray for your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ through the weekly prayer focus and this email.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.

say what you see

Some of you may remember Audrey 3 from a couple of weeks ago. She’s a venus flytrap and I bought her to deal with the small flies that seem to like annoying me while I am in my office. Since her arrival the number of annoying flies in my office has dropped significantly and it looks like Audrey 3 has eaten some of them because several of her ‘mouths’ have been closed recently and have now reopened.

I wasn’t around when the flies got caught so I can’t confirm whether there was a loud ‘whump’ or ‘om, nom, nom, nom’. The trap is triggered when a fly moves one of the tiny hairs inside the mouth and I really would like to see it happen. The temptation is to use a cocktail stick or something like that to trigger the trap. But the advice given to owners of venus flytraps is that you should not trigger them unless there is food in their mouth. Apparently it takes a lot of energy for the plant to trigger the trap and that needs to be replenished by the energy obtained from absorbing the prey. Unnecessarily triggering the trap can lead to the plant’s death.

There’s a real temptation to make a comment about the consequences of triggering Article 50 here but I am going to resist it and allow you to make your own jokes. But there are times for all of us when we have to go to extra effort because of someone else.

It could be as simple as someone leaving the toilet seat up, or leaving the lid off the toothpaste. But there is lots of scope for us to have to take extra effort in life because of the actions of another person.

Do you get frustrated when someone is dawdling along the pavement in front of you and start to go around them and they change direction right in across your path? You then have to stop suddenly and change direction to avoid knocking them over.

Or what about if you have a dishwasher and someone has thoughtfully brought their dirty dishes and placed them on the surface in the vicinity of the dishwasher rather than in the dishwasher? They may think they have been helpful but you have to finish the job.

Or maybe you have trodden in something unpleasant on the pavement that was left behind after someone had a takeaway, or even worse, after their canine friend had done what it had to do? There’s some serious cleaning up needed then.

How about when someone’s having a barbecue in a neighbouring garden and you’ve got washing out drying?

Most of the time when our hairs are tickled and we have to make the effort to react and respond to others they are unaware of the effort we have expended. Of course we would like them to know (and that’s why car horns were invented I think) but ask yourself for a moment how many times are people doing that for us and we are unaware of it? Because we are unaware we won’t know.

We human beings almost always live in communities with other humans. Sometimes they are informal, like towns or cities, and sometimes they are more formal like places of work or places of worship. In every case I think we would be better off if we all put into practice some of the most overlooked advice in the Bible:


Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (Ephesians 4.2 NIV)

or


Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3.13 NIV)

The emphasis is mine, but the opportunity is there for all of us. How different would life be if we all bear with one another? (Say what you see)

Be blessed, be a blessing

om, nom, nom, nom popcorn

Last week I watched some of the World Athletics Championships in London. I didn’t manage to get to the stadium so was restricted to watching on TV. There were some astonishing feats, some memorable races, jumps, throws and performances. But the moment that I remember more vividly than any other was when the TV camera zoomed in on two little girls who were eating popcorn. You really have to watch it. You can see it on YouTube here.

om nom nom

I laughed at that moment so much, and it still makes me chuckle every time I watch it again. The contrast between how the two are eating the popcorn is delightful and the little girl with curls is so determined to shovel as much in as possible it’s hilarious. Watch it again and add “Om, nom, nom, nom” every time the girl with curls eats and it seems to fit even better than the commentary, which was already funny.

The video also made me reflect on my relationship with God. The following thoughts are disparate and don’t work consecutively…

  • Am I as hungry for God as the girl with curls?
  • Do I devour the Bible or dip in politely?
  • Is this a metaphor for how many of our churches operate – more focused on making sure we get what we want than about sharing it with anyone else?
  • Would we act differently if we knew we were being watched by millions? So why don’t we act differently in God’s constant presence?
  • It’s good to laugh and to be the cause of laughter.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

view from my pew 13

Dear Internet

Mr Grenville-Stubbs here again. Did you miss me? I have been busy trying to make a positive difference in cyberspace. I had an idea for a search engine that I have been trying to get off the ground with what is known as ‘crowd funding’ – where lots of people offer small amounts of money to help make something a reality.

My idea was to create a Christian internet search engine. I did think of calling it ‘Ask Mr Grenville-Stubbs’ but my friends suggested that this might be a bit of a long name for people to type in. They suggested something easier to remember, too. So I came up with ‘Goddle’.

searchGoddle works like any other search engine you can think of: you type in a question, a word or something that you want to find out about and click ‘pray’. (I think ‘pray’ is better than ‘search’ for a Christian search engine).

After you have clicked ‘pray’ the clever software will go to work and find a Bible verse that relates to that question / word / thing you want to find out about. So, if you wanted to search pray for information about ‘wrestling’, for example, Goddle would provide you with Psalm 13 verse 2: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

I put this idea on a website for crowd funding ideas and have been waiting for donations to flood in. I think there must be a bug in that website because even though my idea has been available for the past month so far nobody has offered anything.

I am sorry to have to say that my Minister, Revd Philip Inneck-Tucker was not much help at first, either. I mentioned the idea to him on a Sunday after church but he had one of his mysterious coughing fits and had to rush off to get a glass of water. I tried to talk to him several times later that day but he always seemed to rush away just as I got close to him. In the end I managed to talk to him by waiting outside the church until he had locked up and was unlocking his car in the dimly lit car park.

I came up behind him: “So what do you think of Goddle?” I asked.

He uttered something unintelligible (or it may have been ancient Hebrew) as he clutched his chest. “What are you doing sneaking around in the shadows? You almost gave me a coronary!”

I apologised for surprising him, but insisted he gave me his opinion.

“Why would anyone want to use Goddle?” he asked. “If I want to find a recipe for chili con carne I don’t want to be given some obscure verse from Leviticus about regulations for food preparation.”

“But the Bible has answers for everything,” I said.

He gave me one of his funny looks and that’s when he gave me a brilliant idea. He suggested that if that was my attitude to the Bible I could save myself a lot of time and money by making the answer to every question: “Jesus.”

Why didn’t I think of that?

Yours faithfully

Mr QR Grenville-Stubbs

 

elasticated

So I was lying in the dentist’s chair, looking at the photo on the ceiling (it’s of someone in a powered parachute flying over the sea next to some cliffs) and trying not to pay too much attention to what the dentist was doing. She was working on the scaffolding that I have attached to my teeth in order to try to get them to go back to the state of order in which God intended them to live in my mouth (rather than the random order they were working towards). This is not (I add defensively) because of personal vanity but because in their disorganised state some of my teeth were cutting into my tongue).

I sensed the dentist was nearing the end of the process for that day and started to relax.

And that’s when it happened.

pile-of-elastics.jpg
They’re not as big as this!

Before I knew it she had looped two elastic bands over my mouth scaffolding: linking the upper teeth to the lower ones. I was completely unprepared for it as she had not warned me that this would be part of the process of giving me a smile that looked normal.

I really dislike them. No, I mean really dislike them. They make my jaw muscles ache because every time I open my mouth the elastic bands are under tension and are pulling my jaws back together. They inhibit my speech, making it more difficult for me to pronounce certain words. They rub against my cheek, meaning that talking is sometimes painful. They look horrible. And when, occasionally, one of them snaps inside my mouth it’s like a small bee has stung the inside of my cheek!

For a while I stopped wearing them during the day and only wore them at night. But the next time I saw my dentist she told me that this was not a good idea. The elastic bands are supposed to be easing some of my teeth downwards so that they are the right length. And if I don’t have them on for most of the time the teeth settle back into their old ways during the time when they are not under tension.

So, VERY reluctantly, I have been wearing the elastic bands.

At this point I hope that, at the very least, you might be feeling a tiny amount of sympathy for me, dear bloggist. However I suspect some of you are thinking, “Oh, boohoo you crybaby. Pull yourself together you wuss, there are people enduring far more painful and life-threatening experiences than you are with your teeth.”

And I would have a lot of sympathy for that view. I know I am being pathetic. I know that I am not being rational about this. I know that this is temporary. I know that it’s for my benefit in the long term. I know that in the grand scale of things this is tiny.

I know all of that.

But I still really resent having the elastic bands on my teeth.

Very few people actually like the discipline of something that is difficult, painful or unwelcome even if we know that it will have long term benefits:

A student who struggles with a particular subject may well resent extra lessons that will help them.

A person riding a bicycle up a steep hill may labour with the effort it takes even though they need to get to the top and the exercise will be doing them some good.

Many people resent paying taxes even though we know that they pay for many of the services upon which we rely and from which we benefit (health, transport, defence, and so on).

And for some reason many followers of Jesus seem to put spending time reading their Bibles and praying in the same category. Or if we don’t consciously do so we behave as if we do. We can struggle, we can labour, we can perhaps even resent it. Even though we know that these things will help us to grow closer to God, help us deepen our relationship with Jesus and enable us to experience his Spirit more easily we don’t do them. A survey in 2012 in USA found that only 19% of churchgoers read the Bible every day. Another survey in 2014 found that only 68% of American Christians pray every day. I suspect that these figures will be much lower in the UK.

For some reason we see these things as disciplines for Christians to struggle with not privileges for disciples. We see them as a chore! But discipline and disciple have the same root! The student who perseveres with extra study will gain the benefit of a better understanding. The cyclist we perseveres with riding to the top of the hill will get to their destination and be fitter. The taxpayer improves their society and gains the benefit of paying their taxes when they visit the doctor, drive their car and live in a free country.

The follower of Jesus who spends quality time in prayer and reading their Bible will find that their understanding of God will increase, their awareness of his presence will be enhanced and their walk with him will get easier. There are lots of things that can help you – apps for your phone, websites, books, people… even blogs!

If you doubt me why not try it and prove me wrong!

And at least they won’t twang back and hurt you.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

Christian magic?

cheat

I am a Christian.

And I am a magician.

To some Christians those two statements are incompatible. I had a conversation yesterday with someone who was extremely upset that magic was being performed at their church and rang me to complain. They didn’t know before they rang me that I am a magician and we were able to have an interesting conversation. The conversation was useful (to me at least) because we reflected on whether being a magician is incompatible with being a follower of Jesus. So let me share my thinking with you in response to the concerns that were raised. This is not a transcript of the conversation from yesterday but includes some of the points raised and others that I have been asked about in the past. I have reflected on what was said yesterday and it has helped me, I hope it might help you:

  • Magic is prohibited in the Bible. Yes it is. But that is not the magic that I perform. When magic and magicians are mentioned in the Bible it is referring to something completely different to what I do. In the Bible the magic that is mentioned is either seeking to use the dark side of supernatural life to influence, deceive or gain power; or it refers to people to seek to replicate miracles to boost their own standing and gain political power or influence because of their apparent ability; or sometimes “magicians”, is better translated as ‘wise men’ and refers to advisers and what we might call senior civil servants. What is commonly referred to as magic today has nothing to do with tapping into the dark side of supernatural life and is not used to gain political power or influence, although I suspect that government advisers might like the ability to bamboozle others (and some may do that with rhetoric along the lines of Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes (Prime) Minister). If I ever look like I am heading to the dark side please tell me.
  • But you call what you do ‘magic’ and that may lead more impressionable (young) people to dabble in the dark arts. This is not about the nature of magic, but the nature of words. There are many words that have two different meanings (Homonyms), such as: ‘net’ – net gain, internet, fishing net; ‘point’ – point of a pencil, making a point, pointing something out. I understand that ‘magic’ as performed by magicians today may appear similar to magic that invokes the dark arts and that some performers like to create the illusion that they have special powers but they are different genres. The Bible is not talking about magic in the same way that we use the word today. People called Jesus ‘teacher’ in the Bible but while we use the same word today we mean something a bit different by it. The King James Version of the Bible uses ‘charity’ in 1 Corinthians 13 (more modern versions use ‘love’) but ‘charity’ means something different today.
  • Yes, but someone who is interested in what you do as magic could go down the wrong path. If you didn’t do magic then that would not be so likely. It’s possible. But then would we have to stop married couples from having sex because it might lead people to have sex with prostitutes; or stop people from driving cars because it might lead some people to drive recklessly; or stop actors from pretending to be other people because it might lead some people to steal someone’s identity for fraudulent purposes? Would you ask a musician not to play their guitar in church because some other songs are vulgar or misogynistic? Would you say that a computer can’t be used to project words or images in a church service because some people use computers for salacious purposes? Would you ask your preacher not to illustrate their sermons with incidents from current events that help us to understand how to apply what the Bible says because some newspapers are politically biased?
  • Now you’re just being facetious. You may be correct. Sorry. But I was trying to point out that just because you do one thing does not mean that it will or could lead someone else down a very different path, and I was trying to show how distant the possible connection is between magic in our culture and magic referred to in the Bible.
  • But when you perform illusions you are deceiving people deliberately. Isn’t that ‘bearing false witness’? Only in the same way that children are pretending to be someone from the Bible they perform in nativity plays, or actors in soap operas pretend to be another character when they perform. We know that child with the tea-towel on their head is not really Mary or Joseph, we know that the actor is not really the character they are playing. We also know that the entertainer who is a Magician does not really have magical powers. Magic as performed today is entertainment and audiences have an implied contract with magicians – the magician will try to entertain the audience by amazing and fooling them with illusions while the audience will be happy to be fooled in order to be amazed and entertained (some will try to work out how it happened, but that’s part of the entertainment for them).
  • I’m not convinced. But even if you are right, why do we have to use magic in church? I can’t speak for all Christian magicians. But speaking personally I do explain that I have no magical powers and am not in league with the devil, and that all that people see is an illusion. I use my illusions to try to illustrate a point in a memorable way. It’s a bit like Jesus telling a parable to illustrate a point – the story is not true but because it’s a good story we remember it and hopefully his message gets through. I hope that my magic is good and remembered and hopefully the associated message gets through too. I am NOT suggesting that my magic is on a par with Jesus’ parables, by the way, but it’s a similar principle. If people enjoy something they are more likely to remember it.
  • But why do you have to call it ‘magic’? If you called it something else you could avoid the confusion.  Maybe so. If it is a real problem for some people that I call it ‘magic’ I would be content to call it ‘illusions’. But all that does is change the name of what I do. If you’re telling me that you’d be happy with magic if the name was changed it does rather undermine a lot of your arguments doesn’t it? We’re back to semantics and homonyms.
  • But can’t you just tell stories to make your point, why do you have to use magic? I believe that part of the way in which God made me is with the ability to perform magical illusions. That’s not a power: it’s an aptitude that I enhance with practice. When I create and perform illusions to me it’s similar to what Eric Liddell said when asked why he ran: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” When I perform my illusions I do so to the best of my ability – as a tribute to my Creator – it’s an act of worship. My thinking about this is based on what Paul wrote to the church in Colossae: And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him…Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord…” (Colossians 3:17, 23).
  • But I find it difficult and shouldn’t you avoid doing things that cause others to stumble? Well played, good argument. However I am not convinced that my performing magic tricks is causing you to stumble. It might make you uncomfortable but it’s not going to make you lose your strongly-held faith, which is what the ‘stumbling’ refers to. And I would also suggest that performing magic for the purpose of people coming to understand more about Jesus is not a bad thing. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23) When he was in Athens Paul used ideas and objects and themes from their culture to get people interested in Jesus (Acts 17:16-34). I dare to suggest that it’s also what Jesus was doing with his parables. It’s what I am trying to do with my magic.
  • Thank you, I think I have taken up enough of your time. You’re welcome. Bless you. I think we will have to agree to disagree, but we can do that as followers of Jesus without falling out. I understand where you are coming from and I have heard what you have said. I will reflect on it and see if I need to change my opinion.

You may or may not agree with me, that’s up to you. However, before we Christians get hot under the collar and start lobbing Bibles at each other perhaps we should reflect more and listen to the other person’s perspective for longer: they may have equally good reasons why they believe what they do and there may be things we need to change because we have listened to them.

And please let’s remain fervently committed to the most important thing: following Jesus and making him known to others: Let’s seek to remain united in him and not allow what the less important things we disagree about to divide us.

Be blessed, be a blessing