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.
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.
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’.
Goddle 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.”
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.
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!
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.
Last Sunday I had the unusual experience of hearing a sermon preached from Haggai. BIG points to any of you who have ever preached from Haggai, bonus points if you can find it without having to rummage through the Minor Prophets!
It’s a fascinating little book that dovetails particularly with Ezra and the rebuilding work following the return from Exile under Nehemiah. The preacher based his sermon on two phrases in Chapter 2 verse 4: “Be strong… and work. For I am with you.” There’s a lot in that alone, but later on I read the whole of the book and was fascinated by God’s promise to Zerubbabel (governor of Judah) that God “will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you.” (Haggai 2:23) That’s an unusual phrase, isn’t it?
I wonder how Zerubbabel felt when Haggai delivered those words to him from God. Was he hoping for something a bit more dynamic, a bit more impressive or a bit more visible? I turned to my three commentaries on Haggai (yes, three! (although they are all collections of Minor Prophets)) and discovered that Zerubbabel was not only the bounciest man in the Bible but was a grandson of King Jehoiachin, so therefore was part of the royal line of David. In Jeremiah 22:24 God had described Jehoiachin as being like his signet ring that he was going to take off and fling away (into Babylon) because of his sin. Now God is ready to put his signet ring back on, having retrieved it from down the back of the sofa of the Exile. To take the language of Habbakuk, in his wrath God had remembered mercy. And the line of David could continue through to Jesus.
A signet ring in those days was not a mere piece of jewellery. It signified the King. (Pharaoh put his signet ring on Joseph’s finger to give him his authority, for example). It was as important as a crown and was used to seal important documents to prove that the King endorsed them. God calls Zerubbabel his ‘Servant’ not ‘Governor’ in this prophecy, which is a messianic description too. However we don’t hear much more about Zerubbabel after this moment, except that he appears in Jesus’ family tree (Luke 3:27).
So what do we make of all this? Is it just interesting historical analysis? Is it merely fascinating Biblical cross-referencing? I think it’s so much more than that:
it’s a reaffirmation that God is still King of kings (which is why he wanted them to get on and finish the Temple rebuilding (see earlier in Haggai)) even though his kings had let him down;
it’s a reminder that God is the thread of continuity in history (despite the bleak present God will still be King in the future);
and it’s a reminder that God works through people (including political leaders). He spoke through Haggai and he planned to restore the monarchy through Zerubbabel (ensuring Jesus’ royal lineage). As God’s signet ring Zerubbabel would be God’s seal of endorsement on his activity. He would be his proxy.
These thoughts spoke to me in our current circumstances in the UK – where there is turmoil and a need for a reconstruction of society. We need to ensure that God’s visible presence (which is what the Temple was, and we now are) stands strong and proclaims that he is still King of kings. And we should remember that God fulfils his purposes through people – those in low positions and those in authority too. He longs for us all to be his servants and to use us to be part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer that “Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Perhaps we might even dare to consider that as co-heirs with Christ we too are signet rings – signs of God’s rule and authority, and his proxy in his world.
Be blessed, be a blessing
*this was first sent out as a ‘thought for the week’ sent to Baptist Ministers in the Eastern Baptist Association
That question has a range of answers from the simple: “You open the book and read the words on the pages” to the complex: “You need to understand the culture surrounding the events and you need to understand the form of literature that you are reading.”
Actually both are accurate and fair answers to that question. But I want to frame it slightly differently: do you read the Bible searching for answers to life’s problems and complexities or do you read it looking for wisdom to help you work out how to approach life’s problems and complexities? It may seem like an esoteric exercise in semantics (and tricky words) to pose the question that way but I think the answer is important because it affects how we approach life.
I have a book on my bookshelf that I have had since I was a teenager. No, it wasn’t written on a scroll, but it was published in 1978. It’s called The Answer’s In The Bible. And I think for a lot of my life that’s how I have approached the Bible – looking for answers. I have looked to find out what the Bible says about issues that I face. Sometimes, I admit, I have even naively used it to justify my own actions by taking some verses out of context as an answer (you could use Matthew 25:27 as an argument to save money in a bank and not give it away, but that’s not what the parable is about). But the Bible doesn’t have direct answers for a lot of the questions we might ask today because those things could not have been anticipated in the days in which it was written. It does not have anything to say directly about the internet, computers, cars, aeroplanes, television, space exploration and so much more that we take for granted in our 21st Century cultures and lifestyles. And the Bible’s silence on some issues causes us problems if we are just looking for answers on what to do when…
Okay Christians, put the stones down gently and step away. Or at least don’t lob them at me just yet, please – read on…
You see I do believe that the Bible gives us access to God’s wisdom which enables us to work out what to do and how to approach life’s problems and complexities. The wisdom of God is contained throughout the pages of the Bible*. But there are two overarching themes through the Bible – God’s LOVE and JUSTICE – and they are at the heart of his wisdom.
They trump anything else. And if Love and Justice seem to be in conflict then Love wins every time in the form of grace and mercy. If you want the ultimate example of it you find it in what the Bible has to say about Jesus’ death and resurrection: God’s love and justice are both involved, but love wins even as he dies. (The resurrection proves it!)
So if you decide to look for Biblical wisdom rather than answers what does the Bible say about the internet and computers, for example? Nothing directly, as I have said. But it talks (from a starting point of being loving and just) about being honest, not gossiping, not lusting, not expressing hatred for others, good administration, and a lot more. That wisdom can shape good use.
And the great thing about seeking Godly wisdom from the Bible rather than just answers is that the wisdom crosses boundaries of time, culture, geography, ethnicity and any of the other things that can make it difficult for us to apply those words to our lives today. The Bible is not a rule-book to be followed or an instruction manual to help us maintain our lives. It is God’s wisdom expressed as love and justice seen through his interaction with humanity (especially seen in Jesus where the two are combined wonderfully).
So how do you read the Bible? Searching for answers or looking for wisdom?
Be blessed, be a blessing
*Even the apparently esoteric rules and regulations of Leviticus contain wisdom: not wearing clothes woven of two different kinds of thread (Leviticus 19:19) is about ensuring that clothes will last and provide value for money because when washed different threads are liable to shrinkage and may either weaken or even tear the garment, which could also lead to public embarrassment.
When I left my last church in order to take up this post a friend gave me a book. It’s The President’s Devotional by Joshua Dubois, and is a year’s devotional reflections that he wrote for President Obama and sent him in a daily email for him to read first thing every day. The thought for this Sunday is as follows:
‘“Let every one of us cultivate, in every word that issues from our mouth, absolute truth. I say cultivate, because to very few people – as may be noticed of most young children – does truth, this rigid, literal veracity, come by nature. To many, even who love it and prize it dearly in others, it comes only after the self-control, watchfulness, and bitter experience of years.” Dinah Craik, A Woman’s Thoughts About Women.
‘“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32 (ESV)
‘Truth: the sieve through which our every action must flow. Yes, it’s allowable; yes, it’s beneficial; yes, it’s profitable; but is it true? Only we know the answer – and to this standard we must keep. “Let every one of us cultivate, in every word that issues from our mouth, absolute truth.”
‘Dear God, grow within me the desire for truth in all things so that I might be set free from the bondage of falsehood. Let veracity be my nature. Amen.’
Aside from the challenge of the thought, the fact that each day the President of the USA is receiving a devotional thought like this is encouraging. It reminds me of the role of a slave (perhaps known as an Auriga) in a Roman Triumph whose role was to stand behind the victorious commander and, whilst holding a laurel crown on his head also whisper “Memento homo” in his ear – “Remember you are a man.”
The Bible for us can be like that slave. Through it God’s Spirit whispers in our ear and helps us to keep the right perspective:
When things are going well and we are tempted to pride and self-reliance he whispers in our ear, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
When things are tough and we are tempted to give up he whispers in our ear, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship*. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:15b-17)
Let’s always pay attention to the Spirit’s whispering in our ear through Scripture!
Be blessed, be a blessing
*‘sonship’ here indicates the bestowing of the full legal rights of an adopted male heir in Roman culture