is Christmas over?

Christmas is an amazing season isn’t it? A whole church calendar month is taken up with retelling the narrative from what amounts to just a handful of verses from the Old Testament and a handful of chapters from the New Testament. Yet there is always something new in the narrative to captivate, challenge and provoke us no matter how long we have been a Christian. If you strip away the tinsel, baubles, presents and fat beardy blokes in red suits we are left with an astonishingly complex series of events.

It’s a narrative that begins with a pregnant nation and a pregnant teenager, leads us to a bewildered fiancé, changes scene due to a politically-motivated relocation, peaks with a birth in squalid conditions, involves rough and ready strangers poking their noses in uninvited (reminding us that Jesus is for the rough sleepers as much as the wealthy)… and it’s the story of God with Us. It’s the story of God breaking all of the theological rules because he loves us all.

But we’re past Christmas now. It has been taken down, packed away and assimilated into our churches in the same way that we assimilate that new pair of socks from Aunt Doris into our wardrobe – comfy and familiar, so why am I going on about it still? Well, I am left uneasy with that shift, especially in a lot of free churches. Because we may well have missed out significant parts of the narrative that are as much ‘Scripture’ as any other.

My wife often comments that she has rarely heard a sermon on the significance of the faithful, prayerful expectation of the elderly Simeon and Anna. And I have rarely heard (and even more rarely preached) a sermon on Herod that culminates in the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. He makes a cameo appearance as the pantomime villain in the nativity story – a signpost for the wise men (back to them in a moment) but it’s not easy to think about infanticide on the scale that he ordered. And of course it led to Jesus being a refugee, a ‘migrant’ (asylum seeker?). (Would he have ended up in a rubber boat trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety today, perhaps even ending up in Calais?)

And there are those pesky wise men. Pedants (me included) remind us that there was an indeterminate number of them, albeit three gifts. But they were astrologers, they were foreigners, and (heaven forbid) they may even have been magicians (‘magi’ is the root of the word). They were guided by some sort of celestial phenomenon and play a pivotal role in the narrative by reminding us that Jesus was not just for the Jews. Yet their meddling led them to alert Herod to Jesus’ birth and quite possibly led to the toddler-bloodbath. What good did their worship gifts of gold, incense and myrrh do the bereft parents?

All of this reminds me that to try to create a neat, tidy, sanitised gospel is impossible because God in not neat, tidy and sanitised. He is God with us in the midst of mess and carnage. He is God with us in emotional trauma. He is God with us in confusion. He is God with us when we feel on the outside. He refuses to be limited by human expectations or theology. We can attempt to describe him but he’s always going to surprise us by being beyond our imagination.

We often talk about ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking out of the box’ because we don’t want to be constrained by tradition and expectation. And I warm to that. But paradoxically I want to confine my thinking this year. This year I want to think inside the manger. Who knows where that will take me?

courageous reasoning

With all the love, grace and encouragement I can muster I want to ask you to bear with me and read this bloggage to the end. It may be the most important one I have ever written.

One of the things that an imminent operation on your heart does for you is force you to face your own mortality. I have the utmost confidence in the surgeon and his team and have been assured that the risks of the surgery are minimal, but they are there nonetheless. I have had to think about and prepare for that very small possibility.

Christians believe in life after death (and life before death too). We don’t believe in reincarnation or hanging around as a ghost / spirit, but a full-blown life-as-God-intended no-holds-barred all-consuming experience of God for those who want it once we have curled up our tootsies and shuffled off this mortal coil. And when we come face to face with something that reminds us that we are not indestructible and that life is finite we have to consider whether we really believe what Jesus said.

That’s when the rubber hits the road as I have to consider whether I really believe what I proclaim.

rubber hits road

I want to say a wholehearted, unequivocal “YES!” I believe it with all my heart, mind and soul. I have staked my life on it.

One of my favourite definitions of faith is: “Reason in a courageous mood.”* You take what you can deduce, what you can learn, what you can understand and then extrapolate from that to the next logical step, and that extrapolation leads you to take a step of faith – following the trajectory of your thinking and understanding and acting on it.

So, by way of example, if you had to cross a ravine and there was a bridge there you would need to exercise faith in the bridge in order to use it and cross the ravine. Before you did you might examine the bridge to see how strong it is, you might ask other people who have used the bridge and you might even research online how and when it was constructed. But once you had come to the conclusion that it is strong enough for you to use safely you then have to take the step of faith and put that reasoning into practice by crossing the bridge. And you are encouraged when that faith is vindicated and the bridge holds.

All that I have read, considered, discerned and understood about Jesus of Nazareth confirms to me that I believe him and I believe in him. What he said makes incredible sense. What the contemporary records say about him reveal an extraordinary person. And the evidence for his resurrection is (in my view) pretty conclusive. All that points me to the conclusion that he is who he claimed to be: God with us. He is worth following and trusting and through faith in him I am able to have a relationship with God that is life in all its fullness now and beyond death. My reason has become courageous and I have been blessed, inspired and encouraged to find that this faith has been vindicated.

I want to say a hearty “Amen, amen, amen!” to these words written by Paul to the early church in Rome (Romans 8):

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? [If you read the preceding verses you see that ‘these things’ are pain, suffering and death.] If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

‘For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’[j]

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You have to make your own mind up about this, but please do so on an informed basis. Faith may be reason in a courageous mood but for many people lack of faith is not cowardly reason, it’s simply that they have never considered it. The difficult thing is that although you can investigate, research, discuss, listen and discern about the Christian faith, ultimately you’ll only experience it in its fullness by taking the step of faith. It’s like a stained-glass window. From the outside you can see lots of the shapes and images in a stained-glass window but you will only really experience it in all its glory once you go inside a church and look at the light shining through it – that’s the way they were designed.

stained glass 3

If you would not say that you are a follower of Jesus and if you consider me to be someone you trust then I want to encourage you to consider his claims carefully and investigate them for yourself. Then you can decide whether to get courageous with the reason.

If you are a follower of Jesus, don’t privatise your faith – live it 24/7. If it’s good news for you it’s good news for everyone.

If maybe you are a follower of Jesus but you’ve not been actively following him you will know that he would love to welcome you back into a closer walk with him – you only have to take the first step and you’ll find that he’s already there with you.

If you have never considered these things I hope and pray that we could have a conversation about it once I have recovered from the operation, but don’t feel you have to wait for that moment – talk with another Christian.

The reason I believe all of this is not because I am a Baptist Minister. I am a Baptist Minister because I believe that this is the most important thing in life (and death) and it’s worth dedicating my life to.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I believe this is attributed to LP Jacks from 1928, but I first heard it from one of my spiritual heroes, friends and Senior Minister in my first church: Revd David Richardson

getting rid of the goat

pexels-photo-58914.jpeg

A fragment of papyrus has recently been found in the Sinai Desert. It appears to be part of a Hebrew Priest’s diary…

Day 3874 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Moses has told us that God has given us a new way of dealing with our sin: a Scapegoat. After he’d made himself pure Aaron placed his hands on a goat’s head and confessed all our sin, transferring it to the goat. The goat was then sent off into the wilderness as an atonement sacrifice and we were back in favour with God. Good news.

Day 3875 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Rather alarmingly the goat came back to the camp during the night. Clearly it was hungry and thirsty and as we’d looked after it all its life it decided that being with us was better than the wilderness. Aaron was not sure what to do as God didn’t give him any instructions for what to do if the scapegoat came back. He commissioned me to drive the goat away again so I shooed it far away.

Day 3876 Still not made it to the Promised Land. That pesky goat came back during the night again. I was rather relieved that Aaron didn’t notice so this time I took it a long way away from the camp and tied it to a bush. Glad to have got away with that one.

Day 3877 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Guess what. The goat came back again last night, dragging a half-eaten bush behind it. It must be part homing-pigeon as it keeps coming back home. This time I took it off to the middle of the wilderness and tied it to a rock. I made the mistake of looking it in the eyes as I left – I feel really sorry for it.

Day 3878 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Unbelievably the goat came back again last night. It chewed its way through the rope. I think we have bonded so I have decided to keep it. I will hide it in my tent and try to disguise it so that Aaron doesn’t find out. If anyone asks me about the bleating sounds and I will tell them that I have allergy issues that are making me sneeze.

[The next part of the parchment is missing and looks like it has been chewed by a goat]

Day 3891 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Scapey (the goat) has been chewing everything in my tent. It’s becoming really difficult to keep him hidden and he won’t stop bleating, even when I’m not in the tent. I find it difficult to do my priestly duties while hiding my guilty secret. Every time I see Aaron I can feel my face reddening and I am sure he suspects something. Got to stop writing now as someone is coming.

[The fragment of parchment ends here].

I wrote this parable following my morning bible study on the subject of ‘scapegoat’ from Leviticus. I wondered why the goats didn’t come back to the place where they were fed and given water, and what would happen if they did… the rest is in my imagination! It’s a parable we have shared with our churches to help them think missionally, but it also made me reflect personally…

  • The idea of a scapegoat is one with which many people (especially Christians are familiar). The Bible says that the scapegoat atonement has now been fulfilled in Jesus. Why do you think God wanted the scapegoat to take the sin away into the wilderness?
  • What could the priest have done differently? Why do you think he decided to try to deal with the goat on his own?When we confess to God what we need to be forgiven do we do so with the hope that we will be set free from them or are we just glad that we can be continually forgiven as we continue to do the same things?
  • How often do we seek forgiveness for our sins and then find that they have made their way back into our life? Is there an alternative to trying to deal with them on our own? Do we sometimes try to keep them secret instead of dealing with them?How does our attitude to forgiveness, failure and finding freedom affect our participation in God’s mission?
  • New Christians often make the most enthusiastic evangelists. Is it time for us to seek to rediscover the joy of our salvation?

Be blessed, be a blessing

twenty-first century jubilee

Warning: this bloggage contains idealism, optimism and challenge.

prioritiesI grew up in an era when the threat of nuclear attack was real. The peace of the world existed in a tension that was known as MAD – mutually assured destruction. In other words, we would not blow up another country because we knew that they would blow us up in return – the missiles passing each other in their deadly trajectories. It was also an era when acts of terrorism were commonplace – mostly in Northern Ireland but sometimes on the UK mainland too.

We now live in an era when there is a new threat of nuclear attack as smaller countries acquire the technology to split the atom destructively. We also live in an era where acts of terrorism are commonplace – fuelled by a hideous distortion of Islamic ideology.

It seems to me that MAD and terrorism are two aspects of the same worldview: the threat and reality of death and destruction are the ultimate ways of exercising power, influence and control over someone else. They are ways of establishing or enforcing control in a situation. Those who have the power maintain it with the threat or reality of death and destruction and those who feel powerless seek to regain power and control through the threat or reality of bringing death and destruction to those who have the power.

Part of me wants to scream, “Have we learned nothing in 50 years?”

And I fear that the silent response will speak louder than words.

Why is it that some nations, people groups and ideologies are seeking to regain or establish power and control? Put simply (and I know it’s more complex than this) it must be that they feel powerless or lack control. So if we are to resolve these issues how are we going to do it?

  1. You could rain death and destruction down on those who are threatening it – remove them from the planet and you remove the threat. Except that the threat will always re-emerge because there will always be others who feel so powerless and lacking in control and influence over their own lives that they see no alternative. That is the current policy operated by the powerful.
  2. You could seek to force those who are threatening death and destruction to desist by making their existence intolerable through the imposition of sanctions of different sorts. But the danger is that if they are not starved into submission they may be starved into even more desperate acts in order to try to survive.
  3. You could seek to negotiate peace with those who are seeking or threatening to disrupt it. This only works if all sides want peace and are willing to negotiate. It necessitates a recognition that peace through compromise is more desirable than the current situation. Peace that lasts cannot be coerced or imposed because otherwise resentment will fester and emerge later on in violent antipathy.

It seems to me that the approaches that have been taken in the 50 years I have lived on this spinning globe have not secured lasting peace. United Nations resolutions have not changed anything. Economics has not changed anything. Ideology has not changed anything – capitalism may have gained the ascendancy but it actually only benefits the wealthy and powerful so is likely in the long term to exacerbate the problem. Religion has not changed anything – different sides have claimed moral and religious justifications for their actions but nobody has been proved right. Technology has not changed the status quo.

So what would work? I think we need a global response to a global problem. That problem is inequality: inequality of wealth, power, influence, lifestyle, resource consumption, technology and so much more. And what we need is a global outpouring of grace. By this I mean that those with power become willing to ‘lose face’ and seek to improve the circumstances for those who are power-less. It will cost a lot in many different ways, and the cost will primarily be paid by those who have the power, wealth and so on. They are the ones who will be giving things up for the benefit of those who have less as it means a substantial redistribution of wealth, power and influence.

It also carries with it a lot of risks: the risk that those who are seeking to wreak death and destruction on others will simply take what is offered and continue their deadly path; the risk that those who have used aggression or its threat to make their point will claim victory and it could encourage others to try the same thing; the risk that the citizens of the powerful nations will see it as weakness and not re-elect those that we in power who acted that way… many more besides.

It’s actually something that God intends. In the Bible we read of the concept of Jubilee. It was to be a year (once every 50 years) in which debts are written off, land is restored to its original owners, those who have been exploited are released, and everyone acts in the best interests of everyone rather than motivated by greedy self-interest. The problem is that those who had the power and wealth found it too difficult to let go of it so it was never (to our knowledge) put into practice.

Is this achievable? Not by our own efforts because greedy self-interest will always overpower grace and love. Look at what happened to Jesus!

But it is achievable if we get radical. ‘Radical’ as a word has its origins in the concept of ‘going back to the root’. What we need is not a new politics, economics or ideology. What we need is a radical renewal of our relationship with God. Jesus described what he had come to do in the form of announcing a year of Jubilee in our relationship with God: a change of heart and renewed relationship with our Creator is the only way we can begin to see his world transformed and the only way we can see the sort of change that is needed that will affect the hearts and minds in such a way that we will be willing to risk all for the benefit of all. It’s only possible when we allow him to get to work on us by his Spirit to change our hearts and minds and we live in a grace-rich environment.

Am I an idealist? Maybe. Am I unrealistic? Maybe. But it can start with me and you. How about it?

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

doing things properly

One of the things that has occupied a lot of my thinking recently is our EBA Gatherings. These are opportunities for us to get together from across the Association. (In case you were unaware the first one takes place in the Southern Sector this Saturday at Romford Baptist Church. You can find out details about all of them here – it’s not too late to decide to come!)

This year we are holding three Gatherings across the Association rather than one Assembly. We have started doing this in alternate years in order to seek to involve as many people as possible. Doing things this way allows us to develop different but complementary themes – “Rejoicing in the Gospel” and “Pass It On!” – which will be explored in different ways. It allows for the involvement of far more people in the planning and delivery of the events. This is also partly a response to geography: our Association covers about 6,500 square miles, so travelling to one venue for the Assembly, wherever it is, means that some people have to travel a long way. Having three Gatherings means that people don’t have to travel so far.

I believe that these will be wonderful events that will be a blessing to all who attend. We are immensely grateful to the churches who are hosting us and to everyone who is contributing in some way.

But there’s a niggling thought in my mind that feels that we are not ‘doing things properly’ by doing this. And I am not sure I can put my finger on why that is. It might be to do with not fully expressing our unity as an Association: you might suggest that this Trinitarian way of working reflects our experience of God but we are not God and this way of working does reveal more about our three-ness more than our one-ness. It might be to do with us not having a common experience. It might simply be that organising one event is easier than organising three. Or maybe it’s that we have not only done it this way once before and last time it looked very different.

I know from my conversations with some of you that this is also something with which local churches are wrestling. With the advent of things like Messy Church, Café-style services and other expressions of church within the wide circle of church life new congregations are emerging. Similarly there are some churches that have a thriving midweek youth or children’s work but see very few of them in attendance on a Sunday morning. And we try to work out whether these are routes for people to follow to join in with mainstream church life or whether they are ‘church’ in themselves. And part of what lies behind that wrestling is wondering whether we are ‘doing things properly’.

I’m not offering a definitive answer to that as it will vary from church to church. But I wonder whether a part of the answer to my niggles about the three sector Gatherings and the local churches wrestling with different expressions of church / congregations is the same – perhaps we should ask what those who attend think it is! There’s a danger that when those who are used to a more traditional way of doing things try to define the way things should be done we revert to our comfort zones and thus stifle what God is trying to do – in effect we tell him that he can’t do things that way. I think Jesus preferred to allow those he was reaching out to on the margins of life to define what ‘it’ was: he met them where they were and almost seemed to improvise (temporary) community in response to them.

So the Samaritan woman at the well, for example, finds herself in conversation with a male Jewish stranger – a conversation that leads to her becoming an evangelist and Jesus and his friends staying in the town for an extra few days. The joyful entourage on the way into Jericho finds that the star of the show leaves the party in order to eat with the collaborating, thieving tax collector Zacchaeus and as a result there is spiritual, social and economic renewal. A leaders retreat for Jesus and his disciples becomes a feeding frenzy of healing, teaching, loaves and fishes for 5,000+ people… I hope you get my point. Because it seems to me that what wound Jesus up more than anything was religious people telling him that things had to be done in a particular way. And I would rather not wind him up.locked

Perhaps we need to be less worried about whether we are ‘doing things properly’ and instead allow Jesus to improvise community with us: joining in joyfully with what he is doing.

retainers

You may recall that I have had tooth scaffolding for a while (see https://nukelear.me.uk/2016/08/18/tooth-scaffolding/ for example). The purpose was to straighten out my teeth that had decided that they didn’t like being where God had intended them to be and had moved, little by little, to a place where they were actually causing me pain.

A couple of weeks ago the tooth scaffolding was finally removed. The treatment was finished – and successful! I was so pleased to be able to eat without pain and without having to spend time cleaning out the debris afterwards. But more than that I was delighted that my teeth looked more like they are supposed to.

My dentist had warned me that unless we take longer-term remedial action then the teeth may drift back into their old positions. So she attached some metalwork to the inside of my teeth to keep them in place, and she created some retainers for me to wear at night. You see when the braces moved the teeth back to where they should be the roots were loosened slightly and there’s a possibility that the teeth may simply revert to the previous painful position if they were not kept in place long enough to become more solidly rooted again and lose the inclination to incline.

The retainers are necessarily a very snug fit. And each evening when I put them in I can sense that they are gently nudging any rogue teeth back to where they should be. It’s not a massive movement but it reminds me of how things could shift if I don’t do what the dentist said.

20170223_112709What are your retainers? All of us can fall into bad, harmful habits that hurt others or ourselves. And while God offers all of us forgiveness, fresh starts and the opportunity to live life the way it is intended to be lived we also still have the tendency to drift back into those things that are less than the best. So alongside God’s forgiveness, fresh starts and the opportunity to live life the way it is intended to be lived we will be best able to continue in that way if we install retainers. For the most part they are common sense…

It could be a daily routine to remind ourselves to keep short accounts with God and others – I use brushing my teeth as a reminder.

It could be asking someone else to pray for us and giving them permission to ask us challenging questions about how we are doing. I have a Spiritual Director who does that for me.

It could be that we make a decision not to put ourselves in temptation’s way – it would not be wise for someone who finds it difficult to resist the temptation to overindulge in chocolate to work in a sweet shop.

Above all I find that keeping close to Jesus makes the most difference. If he’s just someone I think about for an hour on a Sunday he’s not going to make as much difference in my life as if he’s someone with whom I am constantly in conversation. He gives us his Spirit as a retainer – to help us to follow him – but we do have to pay attention and respond to his prompting!

What are your retainers?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the blog I almost wrote

I was about to blog about an issue I have with using up a particular resource when performing one of my favourite magic tricks when I realised that if I did I might well be revealing a bit more about that illusion than I would want to. That could have several unwanted results:

  1. For people who have seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the illusion would be weakened.
  2. For people who haven’t seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the bloggage would not make much sense.
  3. I could get thrown out of the Magic Circle for revealing too much about the method.

People who perform magical illusions try not to reveal the secrets. This is not because we are maintaining some form of cartel to keep ‘muggles’ ignorant nor because we want to maintain a delusion* of superiority. It’s not even primarily because it would put magicians out of work. It’s first and foremost because the effect and impact of the illusion would be diminished or even destroyed by showing how it is done. Yes the performer may gain some degree of credit or kudos for showing people how clever / dexterous / ingenious they have been but for the audience what was hopefully a moment of amazement, delight and perhaps even awe has been reduced to ‘oh’. The magic has been replaced with an explanation. It’s like deconstructing a joke. The funny is taken out of the joke in the explanation of why it is funny.

I wonder sometimes whether the wonder has been taken out of church in a similar way. We ask questions about God (rightly so) and we try to deepen our understanding of God (a good thing) and in the nonconformist wing of the church in which I find myself most comfortable we have almost made a virtue of simplicity (and ugly buildings) in an effort to show that you don’t need anything special to encounter God (and I don’t disagree with that intention).

20140217_130518But are we also in danger of losing the awe, the wonder, the mystery of God? I was talking with someone recently about Canterbury Cathedral (above) and one of the things it does for you when you enter the vast space and see the height of the vaulted ceiling is that it takes your breath away. I think that was the intention of the designers. Not so that people would go, “Wow, what a building!” but “Wow, how amazing God must be to inspire people to create a place like this in order to worship him!”

But it’s not just buildings that can do this.

Ideally we followers of Jesus should have such God-refined character that when people look at us they say, “Wow, how amazing God must be when you look at his followers!” And Jesus had something to say about that (my paraphrase): “If you love one another in the same way that God loves people then when people look at you it will be blindingly obvious that you are my followers.”

Is it?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*yes, I meant to write that