say what you see

The TV show Catchphrase is based on cryptic visual clues to well known words and phrases. It has its own catchphrase – “Say what you see.” But outside of TV shows politeness and manners seem to prevent us from being quite so forward. Unless you are a child.

I was visiting a couple in the evening recently to discuss their call to Baptist Ministry. When I arrived Dad was upstairs settling the two children into bed. I was shown into the lounge by Mum. While we waited for Dad to finish we heard small footsteps on the stairs and their seven-year-old son appeared in the doorway, informing us that his Dad had given him permission to come downstairs to see who had arrived. He took one look at me and said:

“I didn’t know you were bald!”

I was rather surprised – not as his observational skills but at his forwardness. I struggled to think of a good reply. The best I came up with was:

“I didn’t know you had hair.”

The instant reply came:

“I didn’t know you had ears!”

If I am honest I didn’t quite hear him so I just laughed. (If I had heard I would probably have explained that if I didn’t have ears my glasses would fall off.) After this Mum shooed him off to bed, presumably before he could make any other statements.

I found it hilarious that the young boy was so unafraid to say what was on his mind. He had none of the grown-up filters that we often apply (and which internet trolls seem unable to access) and simply said what he was thinking.

It reminded me this week of the moment when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. There was a mahoosive celebration going on that annoyed the religious leaders who were busy trying to plot Jesus’ downfall. Matthew tells us that when Jesus got to the Temple (the centre of Jewish worship in his day) he cleared out the courtyard that had been turned into a marketplace and healed people. There were some children there and they were shouting what they had heard the crowd chanting earlier: “Hosanna to the Son of David.”*

“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.

“Yes,” replied Jesus, “Have you never read: ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth praise’?” (Matthew 21:16)

The children were unafraid, perhaps unaware of hoiw inflammatory they were being. They were simply joining in. One of the things that I regret deeply is how in churches (and society) we still seem to want to shush children’s voices and don’t encourage them to speak their mind. Because when they do, sometimes we hear God speaking to us.

And I reckon God would much rather we spoke our mind than pretended with him. Say what you see.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*This was not only a statement of praise, it was a revolutionary statement suggesting that Jesus was the one who was going to sort things out for God’s people.

doubt that is bigger than ants

antA while back I remember reading a little phrase that stuck with me because it needed to be mulled and pondered and reflected on: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Apparently it was Frederick Buechner who wrote that in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.

I found it amusing, and then a little bit provocative. Does doubt really keep faith alive and moving? Do we actually need doubt to help keep our faith vibrant? And I am not just talking about Christian faith here, but whatever or whoever it is in we put our faith. You see, if we doubt then we question and if we question then we explore and if we explore then we find new vistas, new ways of thinking about what we believe, new understanding, and perhaps even new / renewed faith. If we have no doubts we have no need to question. I think that is what Buechner is trying to tell us.

However I don’t think that ‘ants in the pants’ is enough. That suggests a sort of irritant, something that makes you uncomfortable, something that makes you squirm. Doubt can be like that, but big doubt, real doubt, foundation-shaking doubt can be dark, all-embracing and menacing. It can be the monster under the bed ready to torment and keep you awake. It can be a highly corrosive acid that eats away the flesh. It can be the black ice on the journey of faith that causes a multiple vehicle pileup.

This is the sort of ‘is there really a God?’ or ‘how can God be like that?’ type of doubt that causes faith to scream in pain and won’t be placated by patronising platitudes. It’s the sort of doubt that demands answers. It’s the sort of doubt that can make or break faith.

If you are experiencing that sort of doubt then you need a few things to help you deal with it.

You need good friends who will support you without judging as you work things through.

You need space and time to explore things properly.

You need grace to be able to explore previously-held beliefs and see whether they still hold true.

You need be determined to persevering through the difficult terrain.

You need to want to come through the doubt (some people prefer to wallow in it).

If you are a Christian I suggest that you spend time looking again at Jesus in the gospels and see what he has to say about faith and doubt.

And, whether or not you call it ‘prayer’ you need to seek wisdom ‘above’ to help you discern truth from lies.

It’s the sort of experience that John of the Cross called the ‘dark night of the soul’. It’s an experience that strips away a faith that we have received but not owned, that dis-empowers our own futile attempts to get to know God on our own terms and provokes within us a desire for a deeper, simpler intimacy with God. Those who have been through it, endured and emerged find that their faith is deepened, stronger and somehow much more relevant to life. It is something lived rather than something thought, it is something experienced rather than something understood. And such a faith enables us to hold faith and doubt in tension.

I think that faith and doubt are siblings – two responses to the innate human suspicion that there is more to life than simply ‘me’. In the Bible Jesus was asked by a desperate father to heal his son. In response to Jesus nudging him in the direction of faith the father exclaimed: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) The siblings are both present as the father wrestled with the reality of a son whose affliction was incurable and was causing him to injure himself and the possibility that Jesus could heal him but what if he didn’t and yet he has healed others…

That’s honest faith. That’s faith that has been wrestling with doubt and has just about emerged victorious but bruised and scarred.

If you are experiencing doubts I hope and pray that beyond a search for answers you will find truth, hope, peace and love.

Be blessed, be a blessing

prayer support

I’ve just been writing my monthly prayer diary, which is sent to a group of people who have offered to pray for me and the Ministry to which God has called me. As I was about to send it out I remembered that my Grandparents told me that they used to pray for me every day. I didn’t doubt it for one moment.

spot the torch
Crowds of people in Colchester cheering on the Olympic Torch Relay

Of course I am certain that they also prayed daily for their children, their other grandchildren, and quite a lot of other people and situations around the world. That was one of their qualities and gifts to others. And whilst I do know that many other people were praying for me, it was one of the things I felt I had lost when they died and joined the great crowd of witnesses cheering on from the galleries of heaven.

So now, knowing that there are others who have promised to pray for me daily, I realise I have not lost that spiritual support and encouragement of others, it’s just been passed on to others. I try to offer the same support to others too.

Yesterday morning I was preaching from Mark 2, the righteous vandals who ripped open a roof to lower their paraplegic friend in front of Jesus. Among the many things that are significant in that passage, as I was speaking it struck me afresh how Jesus acted “When he saw their faith.” Not the faith of the man on the mattress in front of him, but the faith of the four friends peering anxiously through the hole they had made in the roof. It reminded me of how we bring other people into the presence of Jesus in prayer and in faith, and God acts in response to that faith.

So, if you have ever prayed for me, thank you for your faith. If you pray for other people. Thank you for your faith. If you are in need of prayer, and know that others are praying for you, be encouraged that God acts in response to the faith of those who bring people into his presence.

And how much faith do you need? Just enough to pray – God does the rest!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

freaking out a parent

girl with teddyI had a slightly freaky moment yesterday.

I was in the town centre (where our church is located) and walking along, minding my own business, when I heard a small voice enthusiastically say, “Hello!”

I looked down and there was a girl, probably about 7 years old, grinning and waving at me…

Immediately her horrified mother dragged her away, looking at me suspiciously. My knee-jerk response had been to say, “Hello,” (which I did) but before I could say anything else the moment and the family had passed.

You see the child was not from our church or connected to us. Her mother would have had no idea at all who this strange man was whom her daughter was joyfully greeting. I think, as I was still trying to work out what had happened, I heard her mother anxiously ask her who I was, but I didn’t hear the girl’s reply.

I suspect that the girl was someone who has been in the regular school assemblies I have taken at one of our local primary schools. She recognised me (even without Stew the Rabbit) and naturally wanted to greet me. To her it was the natural thing to do – I am part of her school experience. As far as she is concerned she knows me.

To her mother I am an unknown man whom her daughter was happily greeting in a way that may have aroused all sorts of fears… As far as she is concerned she doesn’t know me and she wants to know how her daughter does know me.

I am disappointed that the moment passed so quickly that I didn’t have an opportunity to explain myself and allay the mother’s fears. I am disappointed that I don’t know for sure where that young girl had met me.

But I hope and pray that God will redeem the situation. I hope and pray that the girl’s reply will have allayed her mother’s natural fears. I hope and pray that she may even have remembered something that Stew the Rabbit and I shared with the school about living as a follower of Jesus, and that she then shared that with her mother.

We must do all we can to protect our children and vulnerable adults from those who would exploit and harm them. But please God may we never find ourselves in a situation where childhood innocence, joy, exuberance and excitement are completely erased in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to protect children.

After all, Jesus told adults to become like children, not the other way around!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

what a star

One of the joys of being on sabbatical leave is that I can visit other churches. I have been spreading myself around: making impromptu visits to local churches. Last Sunday I went to another church and had a lovely time. I did, however, have to suppress an attack of the giggles.

The lady who was leading the children’s talk / all age time / bit people remember was using an illustration of how she uses her binoculars to look at the stars at night. She got some children to look through the binoculars and had placed some people at the back who occasionally put up some stars on sticks. The point was that we can’t always see what we are looking for first time and have to keep looking, and praying is like that – we don’t always see the answer first time.

What got me giggling was that the Minister’s son (why is it always the Minister’s son?) was trying to get his toy in the line of sight of the girls who were looking through the binoculars. He was stretching as far as he could to get the toy in front of them. Those attempts were funny, but what almost had me laughing out loud was that his toy was a toy space shuttle! How did he know to bring that toy? Genius!

And what can we learn from this?

Perhaps God was having a laugh with us. Laughter is an underused gift from God: Martin Luther wrote: “If you are not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.”

OR

Children have the ability to upstage anyone.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

what will have you done today?

Bed
not my bed!

What are you doing today? How much will you have achieved by the time your head hits the pillow?

I wonder how you answer those questions? Do you answer them in terms of actions completed, to do lists diminished, tasks achieved? It’s good to be able to do that. I remember at the non-conformist vicar factory to which I owe so much of my ministerial and theological foundations (Spurgeon’s College) we had a session about how it is important to set achievable goals. I also remember (and can confirm by experience) that in a role like that of a Minister, which is ongoing, it is important to break things down into bite-sized chunks and to recognise progress and achievements in that way.

For example, people’s ongoing Christian journey (including mine especially) is never one that is completed, at least this side of  ‘glory’. There is always more to learn, to teach, to discover, more room for growth, more spiritual fruit that we can bear. But baptising someone is a landmark in their journey of faith. Having someone thank you for something you said that they found helpful is something to celebrate (not out of pride, but that you have been sufficiently in touch with God that you got it right!). Finishing a sermon without anyone falling asleep is an achievement to be noted…

So, to bring it back to you, dearest bloggite, how do you answer those questions?

Did you include the conversation you had with your colleague at work where you were able to encourage them? Did you include the prayer you offered for the victim as an ambulance sped past, siren blaring, lights flashing? Could you count the smile on your face as you watched a child playing? Will you include the sadness as you hear from a friend who is struggling?

If we had to complete timesheets we would probably not include any of them. But they are achievements too. They are all part of being a free sample of Jesus…

The words of encouragement you spoke to your colleague were on behalf of Jesus. The prayer you prayed was interceding on behalf of someone in need: very Jesus-like. The smile recognising the joy of childhood and the wonder of play helps you to remember that we are called to a child-like faith and to play as well: Jesus’ words. The sadness with a friend is weeping with those who weep: Jesus-style.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Something else I remember from Spurgeon’s was the atmosphere of laughter and learning. We all need to have a healthy sense of humour, especially about ourselves. The following purport to be letters to pastors from children…

Dear Pastor, I would like to go to heaven someday because I know my brother won’t be there. Stephen. Age 8, Chicago

Dear Pastor, I know God loves everybody but He never met my sister. Yours sincerely, Arnold. Age 8, Nashville.

Dear Pastor, Please say in your sermon that Peter Peterson has been a good boy all week. I am Peter Peterson. Sincerely, Pete. Age 9, Phoenix

Dear Pastor, My father should be a minister. Every day he gives us a sermon about something. Robert Anderson, age 11

Dear Pastor, I’m sorry I can’t leave more money in the plate, but my father didn’t give me a raise in my allowance. Could you have a sermon about a raise in my allowance? Love, Patty. Age 10, New Haven

Dear Pastor, My mother is very religious. She goes to play bingo at church every week even if she has a cold. Yours truly, Annette. Age 9, Albany

Dear Pastor, I think a lot more people would come to your church if you moved it to Disneyland. Loreen. Age 9. Tacoma

Dear Pastor, I liked your sermon where you said that good health is more important than money but I still want a raise in my allowance. Sincerely, Eleanor. Age 12, Sarasota

Dear Pastor, Please pray for all the airline pilots. I am flying to California tomorrow. Laurie. Age 10, New York City

Dear Pastor, I hope to go to heaven someday but later than sooner. Love, Ellen. Age 9, Athens

Dear Pastor, Please say a prayer for our Little League team. We need God’s help or a new pitcher. Thank you. Alexander. Age 10, Raleigh

Dear Pastor, My father says I should learn the Ten Commandments. But I don’t think I want to because we have enough rules already in my house. Joshua. Age 10, South Pasadena

Dear Pastor, Who does God pray to? Is there a God for God? Sincerely, Christopher. Age 9, Titusville

Dear Pastor, Are there any devils on earth? I think there may be one in my class. Carla. Age 10, Salina

Dear Pastor, I liked your sermon on Sunday. Especially when it was finished. Ralph, Age 11, Akron

Dear Pastor, How does God know the good people from the bad people? Do you tell Him or does He read about it in the newspapers? Sincerely, Marie. Age 9, Lewiston