sorry

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When I was a child I used to play a board game called Sorry. It is a version of the classic Ludo where you had to get your counters around the board (by way of dice throws) and back to your home before anyone else. The apology part of the game was that if you landed on a square occupied by one of your opponents’ counters you could send that counter back to the start, and you were meant to say ‘sorry’. My recollection is that I was not sorry at all and was actually rather pleased when I was able to do that to someone else’s counter – my ‘sorry’ was not at all heartfelt. Of course I was less happy when it happened to me.

I wonder whether there are times when our ‘sorry’ prayers are perhaps less heartfelt than they could be. I think we can judge this by using a repeatometer. The repeatometer measures how often and how soon after we have prayed for forgiveness we repeat the thought, action, words or attitude that led us to seek forgiveness in the first place. The higher the frequency and the sooner the ‘offence’ the less heartfelt the apology is. It’s not an exact science (but then it doesn’t exist in reality anyway) but it may be a useful rule of thumb. Of course it may also be that we have got into a cycle of habitual behaviour that we are finding difficult to break and we may need to get some help with that.

I wonder too whether we sometimes use ‘sorry’ prayers as a way of ‘clearing the cobwebs’ so that the things we are sorry about don’t accumulate too much. I am reminded of the story of a woman who, in church prayer meetings, would always pray that God would clear out the cobwebs in our life. One day a young person could not resist it and blurted out, “No, Lord! Kill the spiders!”

There’s an element of truth in that story. Sometimes when we say sorry to God we also need to take action (including asking for his Spirit’s help) in dealing with the problem at root cause so that we are less likely to stumble again. That too may need us to get some help or accountability support from someone we trust.

Of course the Bible doesn’t use the word ‘sorry’ much when it comes to our relationship with God, it prefers to use the old fashioned word ‘metanoia’.

What? Well the original New Testament manuscripts were written in Ancient Greek (not King James English) and that is the Greek word that is used to refer to us having a change of heart and mind and a change of direction. We translate it as ‘repentance’ but that’s a word that is not really used today outside of churches. So change of heart and mind and direction is perhaps a more accessible concept for our culture.

You need to change direction when you realise that the way you are headed is not the way you want to go. You need to change your heart and mind when you realise that you are wrong and want to realign yourself with what is right. Put the two together and you get a good summary of what ‘repentance’ is about – realising that we are headed away from God and that our self-centred approach was wrong and deciding to head back to God and to live life the way he recommends. Jesus’ wonderful story of the ‘prodigal son’ is a beautiful example of that (Luke 15). There are elements of contrition, regret and new resolve within the process too, but let’s not overcomplicate things.

To go back to our Sorry board game. A sorry prayer happens when God’s Spirit lands on us and shows us that we need a change of mind and direction and we head back home. (Yes, I know it’s not a perfect illustration but you get the point don’t you?)

The brilliant thing is that God is longing for us to play say sorry and metanoia-ise. He gives us his Spirit to nudge us and help us to realise what’s going on. When our spirit finally resonates at the same frequency as the Spirit of God we realise what we are doing and how that is wrecking our relationship with God, others and even ourselves and we do an about turn. And when we do, he is there waiting to embrace and celebrate and welcome us back. He offers complete forgiveness (although we may have to suffer the human consequences of our actions) and a fresh start and wipes the slate completely clean. How?

That’s what Easter is all about – God does all that is necessary to make our metanoia completely effective. If you want to know more, have a read of my series on the ‘atonement’ that begins here.

Be blessed, be a blessing

getting rid of the goat

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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

100 metres

Like many millions in this country and probably across the world I watched the Athletics World Championships 100 metres men’s final on Saturday evening. I tuned in hoping to see the fairytale ending to Usain Bolt’s career with him winning the 100m.

But the fairytale ending didn’t happen. He didn’t even come second. He came third! That wasn’t meant to happen.

And more than that, the person who won, Justin Gatlin, had previously been banned from athletics for drugs offences. Twice.

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I had very mixed emotions. I felt sorry for Usain Bolt. It would have been so good for him to win one last time. I felt disappointed that my dream of seeing him win had died. And I was conflicted about someone who had twice been found guilty of cheating by using performance enhancing drugs winning and being crowned World Champion. It didn’t feel right.

I think many in the crowd at the London Stadium in Queen Elizabeth Park also felt the same way. When he was introduced as he came onto the track at the start Justin Gatlin was booed. And he was roundly booed when he won. And he was booed when he was awarded his medal last night. Part of it I think may have been frustration that it wasn’t Usain Bolt getting the gold medal but it was mostly, I think, an expression of distaste at Justin Gatlin’s past behaviour.

And that did not feel right either. He had ‘done his time’ for whatever he had done in the past and because of the stringent drug-testing nowadays we ought to be confident that he is now ‘clean’. So even though it doesn’t make me happy that he won, I don’t think he should have been booed. The rules of the sport allowed him to compete after he had served his sentence. Couldn’t the crowd have showed a bit more class and a lot more grace?

Usain Bolt’s comments after the race show his class:

“I always respected him as a competitor,” he said. “He’s one of the best I have faced. For me he deserves to be here, he’s done his time and he’s worked hard to get back to being one of the best athletes. He’s run fast times, he’s back and he’s doing great. I look at him like any other athlete, as a competitor.”

I think that what bothers me most is the lack of grace shown by the crowd. What if they had twice under-declared their income on their tax return, or had twice failed to admit that they had been undercharged in a shop, or had twice broken the speed limit, or had twice taken a ‘sickie’ from work, or had twice lied to their family … and been caught? Wouldn’t they want to be given another chance? Wouldn’t they hope that this would not characterise their life in the future? Wouldn’t they want to be allowed to move on after doing something to repair the damage and apologising? If so, isn’t it a bit, erm, hypocritical not to offer that same grace to someone else?

I cannot condemn Justin Galtin without also condemning myself because I know I am far from perfect. I hope and pray that with the help of God’s Spirit I am becoming more like the human being I was created to become and am able to fulfil my potential and part of that is showing grace to others. Jesus told a telling parable, you can find it in Matthew 18:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’

22 Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 ‘Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 ‘At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

28 ‘But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.

29 ‘His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.”

30 ‘But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 ‘Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 ‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

 

Be blessed, be a blessing

scar

If you are one of the poor souls who reads my bloggages regularly you will know that from time to time I mention that I suffer from Chronic Migraine and Cluster Headaches. From about 2002 onwards there has been a constant Migraine headache going on inside my skull. The only variation was in intensity of the pain levels. To go with this is a regular routine of Cluster Headaches. The CH attacks make the migraine feel pleasant by comparison and are debilitating beyond belief.

Before you start getting the handkerchiefs out for a sob story let me say that since I had an operation to install an Occipital Nerve Stimulator I have been more or less Migraine and Cluster Headache free while it has been working, which is life-transforming. The headaches are still there. They are still firing away, which I discovered to my painful cost when the battery in my first ONS expired and the headache pain resurfaced almost instantaneously. But the ONS means that my brain no longer pays attention to the pain signals.

(If you don’t like the idea of surgical implantation you might like to skip the next paragraph and pick up the bloggage below the picture).

I am SO grateful to have this gadget implanted within me and to feel the reassurring ‘fizz’ in the back of my head where the wires are implanted. Each week I sit for a while and re-charge the battery that is inserted just under the skin at the top of my chest (no, I don’t plug in, it’s an induction charging process).

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recharging

 

 

(If you skipped the last paragraph, welcome back). The great news for me is that because of this implant I am pain free on the whole. The headaches are there still, but I can’t feel them because my brain has been tricked into ignoring the pain signals.

However, occasionally I get a bit self-conscious about the bits and pieces inside me. Last weekend I attended the Baptist Assembly and as we were sitting in a row in the auditorium one of my self-conscious moments came over me as I realised that all of the people behind me were able to see the scar in the back of my head (oops, sorry, another potential squeam moment). I started to wonder what they were thinking about it, and if they were put off by it. I started to feel uncomfortable about it and wanted to put a hat on to hide it.

And then I realised that most people weren’t likely to be feeling as awkward about it as I was. I realised that if anyone asked me about it I would be able to tell them about the wonderful life-transforming nature of the surgery that led to that scar. And I realised that, once again, I was grateful that I have the scar rather than the headaches. I still wouldn’t mind if my hair regrew in that area and covered it (or indeed the rest of my scalp too) but I became comfortable once again in my own skin, scars and all.

That then got me thinking about how people can be really uncomfortable about how other people perceive them. We all want to be liked and appreciated. We don’t want other people to think badly of us. We try to keep our weaknesses and failures and difficulties hidden from others.

But as a follower of Jesus I want people to know that I have not got myself completely sorted, I still make mistakes, I still let people down, I still get things wrong. I want people to know that I am a work in progress. And while I don’t rejoice or revel in these things they are like the visible scar on the back of my head and I am happy that they are visible because they are testimony to the change that God is bringing about in me. I want people to know that my relationship with God, the example, teaching, forgiveness and fresh start offered by Jesus Christ and the personal experience and presence of the Spirit of God make all the difference in the world to me. Slowly but surely I am being changed to become a better person. The scars and wounds of fragile human nature and fecklessness are still present, but they now point to the fact that my identity in God has been changed to ‘forgiven’.

Just as my ONS means that my headaches no longer have the debilitating effect on me they once had, and it gives me the opportunity to live life with a broader smile on my face, so my relationship with God described above makes all the difference. It’s not that I am perfect and that bad stuff will no longer affect me – far from it. The bad stuff still happens but it happens in the wider context of God’s forgiving, all-embracing gracious love, his gentle presence, a certainty, a hope and a meaning for life within me that are life-transforming for me.

And my story includes an experience that without that forgiving, all-embracing gracious love, presence, certainty, hope and meaning for life within me during the darkest days of the rampant Migraines and Cluster Headaches I would not have been able to live in even the semblance of coping that I had. God’s grace was enough when there was nothing else but pain. The pain didn’t go away, but the all-consuming meaninglessness of it was given a different context of life, hope, love and strength that came from God, not from within.

I hope and pray that you might experience that for yourself too.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

who said that?

I was meeting with some church leaders recently and I said, “The past helps to shape our present but it need not define our future.”

One of the people there asked, “Who said that?”

My answer was not intended to be flippant: “Me.”

They wanted to know who I was quoting, but it was one of the rare occasions when something possibly profound came out of my mouth and I was not aware that I was quoting anyone else. I have since done an internet search for that sentence and while there are others who have written similar sentences and thoughts I am not aware of anyone who has said it in exactly the same way. (If I did inadvertently quote someone else please let me know and I will gladly attribute it to them.)

I have pondered this sentence since: partly because I could not believe I had said something that made sense and sounded like I was quoting from someone intelligent; and partly because I have reflected further on whether it is true. I still think it is. And it can be liberating.

A past success may have enabled us to be in a particular role or enjoy a measure of wealth or fame. But those things can fade if all we do is live on those past glories. I am a long-suffering supporter of a football team that has won domestic and European trophies at the highest level. But the last major trophy was well over 30 years ago and while we still rejoice in that success it is no guarantee of success or survival in the future.

A past failure may have shaped who we are today. But that does not mean that we have to be marked by that failure for the future. We don’t have to wallow in shame and self-pity forever. One of the joys of being a follower of Jesus is that he is in the business of offering forgiveness, fresh starts and freedom from past failure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApparently there’s a saying in countries where there unpaved roads that develop deep ruts in wet weather – choose your rut carefully as you will be in it for a long time.  Once your car wheels have entered a rut you will find it difficult to escape it. The idea is that whether it’s the recent or distant past, events in our life will have shaped and define who we are and where we are today.

But need not remain in a rut. Grace, apologising, seeking and giving forgiveness, reconciliation and renewed hope can help us leave a rut of past failure. Learning from the past, looking with optimism, seeking fresh vision and a willingness to grow can help us leave a rut of past success.

Be blessed, be a blessing

a love story

This Sunday morning in my sermon I will be exploring Hosea (the whole book). Every time I come to Hosea I find myself thinking, “What would I do if I was in Hosea’s position?” How would I feel? How would I cope?

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Hosea’s story is a love story… of sorts. The narrative is fascinating: Hosea set aside his personal preferences and on God’s instruction married a woman, Gomer, who was of dubious reputation (to say the least). This was to be a prophetic symbol to the nation of Israel about how God saw them – promiscuously pursuing other gods. He even named his children with names that spoke prophetically – how would I feel if God told me to name my daughter ‘Not Loved’?! And then there’s the emotional pain and heartache of Gomer’s further unfaithfulness and prostitution.

God not only told Hosea to take her back but he actually BOUGHT her back – perhaps paying off her pimp! Again, this was to be a prophetic sign of how God was going to treat Israel for a season (Hosea bought Gomer back but they were to abstain from sexual intimacy for many days and in the same way Israel’s return would be gradual). It’s only 14 chapters into the book (the final chapter) that there is a glimmer of hope for Israel as Hosea the prophet finishes denouncing them and instead announces the possibility of return to God, forgiveness, reconciliation and a renewed relationship with him. Hosea went through an emotional and reputational wringer in order to give the people God’s message. Some of you may be empathising with him a little! But he was willing to allow his whole life to be a message from God, not only his words. It’s a love story where we are Gomer and God is Hosea.

Ministers can feel a pressure (it may come from within or from outside us) to be a shining example of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and not admit to any weakness. We can present ‘supercope’ to our people: nothing fazes us and we are as close to Jesus as it is possible to be this side of heaven (I exaggerate for comedic effect) (I think). But do we really want people to look at us and see a message from God that it’s wrong to admit weakness and that we never struggle? That’s not a message we find in the Bible: read Romans 7 if you doubt me!

It is important for people to know that we are trying our best with God’s Spirit’s help, they need to see leadership from their clergy, and the qualities of a leader are clear in the Bible. But I believe that we also need to admit that we are fallible, that we are not perfect, and that we don’t have it all together. I’m not talking about airing all of our dirty laundry – we have to be sensible about what we share. But how often are we prepared to be vulnerable about our own doubts, failings and struggles? Can we admit to people that we make mistakes – even Ministers who have trained, studied and are set apart for ministry? Do we dare allow the admission of our mistakes to be a message from God  – that no follower of Jesus is perfect but when we struggle, fail or even doubt there is hope because his Spirit is in us? Does admitting our struggles strengthen or weaken the message that there is the possibility of return to God, forgiveness, reconciliation and a renewed relationship with him?

What message from God do people get when they look at you?

Be blessed, be a blessing

a tidy desk is a sign of…

It’s been said that “a tidy desk is a sign of a tidy mind”. Or how about, “A tidy desk is a sign of a full desk drawer.”

But Albert Einstein apparently said that, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

paperworkThis week, among other things, I am going to tidy my desk (make of that what you will!). I have narrowed down my options to two viable alternatives based on the above (note ‘tidy’ not ’empty’!):

Alternative the first – scoop up all paperwork, stray documents, empty mugs and items that don’t currently have a home and deposit them in an empty drawer / cupboard.

Alternative the second – look through all of the papers on the desk and either respond, file or discard, take any empty mugs to the kitchen and clean them and find a home for any homeless items.

Both alternatives will result in me having a tidy desk.

Alternative the first is quicker and perhaps even in the short term more satisfying. But it will leave items still to be dealt with (and now more difficult to find / remember) and may result in the growth of new life forms if the mugs remain uncleaned for a long period of time, or at best the coffee dregs at the bottom of the mugs will have welded itself to the mug and be difficult to remove.

Alternative the second may take a bit more effort. It may take a bit more time. But at the end the tidy desk will not simply be a space free of clutter it will also be a reminder to me that I have dealt with everything.

How often in life do we deal with problems, difficulties, letting other people down, unforgiveness and other ‘clutter’ by scooping it up and lobbing it in an empty drawer or cupboard? We can give the impression that everything is fine and lovely but those things remain undealt with. They will not go away if we ignore them and indeed they can get worse so that we have a bigger issue to deal with when we finally have to deal with them.

It’s wise to try to sort out problems in our relationships with others and with God sooner rather than later. Occasional ‘spring cleans’ will take a lot longer and be harder work for us that regular ‘housekeeping’ and a relationship is always healthier and closer if there is not ‘stuff’ between you.

If you read Psalm 32 you will read about the difference it makes to us when we hide the stuff we really need to deal with and the contrast with how it feels when we have sought forgiveness.

Be blessed, be a blessing