another thing I got wrong

I have a lot of issues with some of the ways in which the Genesis Creation narratives are used by Christians. They are theological poetry (look at the way that the verses in Chapter 1 are set out in your Bible – not like prose, more like the settings of the Psalms) and narratives that are designed to emphasise the who rather than the how – who created, who humans are, who we are in relation to the planet, who we are in relation to one another. If we start to use these foundational chapters as a science textbook we are asking them to do something they are not designed to do – like using the clothes washing machine to wash the dishes.

Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

But that’s not my major confession today. That relates to chapter 2 verse 18. Chapter 2 is very much the tale that tells us how we should be stewards of the planet and the life that teems on it rather than masters, and the story that shows us the importance of human relationships and companionship. The thing I have got wrong for all of the [coughs loudly to disguise the large number] years I have been reading the Bible is my growing unease with the description of Eve being created as “a helper suitable for him.”

My chauvinistic prejudices are shown in all their glory here if I explain that I had always assumed (and been unhappy with the implications of that assumption) that the ‘helper’ was subordinate to the person being helped. In effect, I had read ‘assistant’ or ‘support act’ rather than ‘helper’. Now don’t get me wrong, I fundamentally believe that all humans are made equal and I do not believe that men are superior to women – we all have the same ‘made-in-God’s-image-ness’ inherent in our being. And that is why I have been uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘helper’ because I had always read it as suggesting inferiority when I do not believe that there is any inferiority or superiority between any humans.

Part of the problem is that I have only read the passage in English and relied on the translators to give me the best equivalent word for the ancient Hebrew. If you explore the ancient Hebrew word which we translate as ‘helper’ it carries with it a sense of someone who assists and encourages. It is someone who provides support for someone who needs help.

Hmmm…

And the same word is used several times in the Old Testament to describe the help which comes from God.

Aaah…

And we translate a Greek word used for the Holy Spirit as ‘helper’.

Ohhh yes…

And when you add the word which qualifies ‘helper’ in Genesis 2 (which is translated as ‘fit for him’) it actually means ‘suitable for him’ or ‘matching him’. A literal translation is ‘like opposite him’. It actually has nothing to do with superiority.

I am much happier now. Especially when I reflect that ‘helpers’ are more often the experts. A good football coach has greater knowledge and experience which they use to help a team work together as well as possible and offer tactical changes and inspiration that help them to win games. A teacher has vastly more knowledge of their subject than their students as they help them to understand it. A breakdown assistance mechanic has far more knowledge and ability than the driver of a broken down car as they help them to get back on the road. And a magician’s assistant is often the one who does the difficult and dangerous work that makes the magician look good. A ‘helper’ is an empowerer who in many ways is greater than the one who is helped.

So that is my confession. I have wrestled uneasily with that word for so long – finding it jarring with what I believe about God and humanity – and now I can embrace it and relax knowing that because there are others around me who are my helpers I am able to grow beyond what I am now.

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.

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