I never knew there was so much in it

bible genesisThere is a publication that tells us the times of TV programmes that had the title of this bloggage as its advertising strap-line.

I regularly find myself saying something similar about the Bible. Yes, statistics tell us that there are 66 books, containing over 770,000 words (depending on translation) divided into just over 31,000 verses (to help us navigate around). The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, the longest is Esther 8:9. The middle chapter (and also the shortest) is Psalm 117. The longest chapter is Psalm 119. There are hundreds of other statistics that I could quote to you about the Bible.

But that’s not my point. It’s not the number of words, verses, chapters or books that impress me. It’s how God can reveal new things through the Bible each time I come to it. He reveals new things through familiar passages. I had that experience on Sunday morning when my colleague Lynsey was preaching. I had that experience last night when I was preaching. There is so much more in the Bible than the 770,000 words. I had that experience this morning when I read a passage for my own reflection.

It doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the words are just words. The silence is deafening and the pages become flat and one-dimensional. Those are sometimes the occasions when I am in a hurry, when reading the Bible has been reduced to a habit (not a bad one). They can be moments when I feel that God is distant from me (usually because I have tuned him out). They are often when my reading or listening are not accompanied by praying.

But there are other times when the words assume a life of their own and truth leaps out at me from every syllable. Those are moments to stop, to ponder, to listen, to reflect, to take note, to respond and to pray.

This morning I read the passage in John 5:1-15 where Jesus healed a man who had been paralysed for 38 years. He asked him a seemingly obvious question: “Do you want to get well?”

But the man’s response was not, “Yes please!” He concentrated on his problems and blamed others (there was nobody to help him) rather than focusing on the One who would be the answer.

Later, after he had been healed and was carrying his mat back home, the religious people told him off for carrying it on the Sabbath. He blamed Jesus for telling him to pick up the mat rather than getting them to focus on the miracle that had happened.

What’s God saying to you today?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

I used to think that the smallest person in the Bible was Bildad the Shuhite. But apparently it is the man who fell asleep on his watch!

all by myself?

from cartoonchurch.com
from cartoonchurch.com

My wife and daughter have abandoned me.

Temporarily.

They are staying with her Mum for a few days during the half term holiday. I know it’s silly and irrational but the house feels very different when they are away. Even during the daytime, when Sally and Hannah are at work and school respectively and I’m, the only one here, the house feels more occupied because I know they will be here again soon. And as I move around the house I find evidence that they were here earlier in the day.

It might just be me, but sometimes I feel a bit like that about God: that he has left me on my own. There is silence around me, prayers seem to vanish into the ether, the sense of his presence is replaced by an echoing absence.

But I have learnt not to panic in these times. As Elijah found out in the cave (1 Kings 19) God can be more present in the silence than in the loudest, most vibrant, bounciest worship service. Elijah was feeling abandoned by God, sorry for himself, all alone. But he experienced God in the sound of sheer silence. Interestingly this did not change his perspective on life, he still expressed exactly the same self-pitying abandonment. What had changed was that he had discovered that God was there with him in it.

When I am experiencing divine absence it is not because God has gone anywhere. He is still with me in his absence (if that does not sound too paradoxical). My ability to sense him may be impaired by me sticking my fingers in my spiritual ears (often because I have been distracted from him); or by me being too busy; or by me expecting to sense him in a particular way and that’s not how he wants me to experience him on that occasion. Even when the ‘absence’ is because I am in pain God is closer than I can imagine. He is with me, in me, sharing my pain, feeling the impact, understanding better than I do and later I find that to be true.

But sometimes (and bear with me here) it’s as if God is playing ‘hide and seek’ with me. When children play hide and seek they are in it together, they know they will be reunited, and the game is part of the friendship. Sometimes, it seems to me, God is deliberately hiding from me because he wants me to search for him, to look for him, to grow my desire to be with him. In the absence, in the desire to be with him my awareness of who he is can grow because I realise what I am missing.

If I walked around the house now I would find lots of evidence of the presence of my wife and daughter. I know too that they are coming home soon (and phone calls help). In the searching for God I use other spiritual senses to find him than my default senses (looking in the Bible is where I usually start) and I find him in music, in nature, in science, in other people, in my imagination, in creativity, in serving others, in rituals, in mysteries, in bread and wine… and in so many other ways. When I take the time there is ample evidence that he is still around, that he has not gone anywhere.

God is not absent, I have the sense that he is watching from his hiding place, desperate to be found again, perhaps planning to jump out and shout ‘surprise!’

Be blessed, be a blessing.

life in all its fullness

DSCF1884Just a short thought today as I have been out for most of the day…

When Jesus told people that he had come to give them “Life in all its fullness” did they realise that the fullness of life includes pain and suffering as well as joy and excitement? Did they understand that the fullness of life includes doubt as well as certainty? Did they expect fullness of life to include moments when God seems distant and silent as well as those times when we are aware of his awe and wonder? Did they think that forgiveness is only needed after hurt has been caused?

I doubt it.

But then we don’t often think of it in those ways too. We want the good, the exciting, the joyful and forget that character is more often forged in the furnace than among feathers.

Yet they are all experiences of life. The difference with Jesus’ offer of “life in all its fullness” is that there is a God dimension in our life too. He is there with us in pain and suffering as well as joy and excitement. He understands our doubt and certainty. He has not abandoned us even when he seems distant and silent – he is just as close as when we are aware of his awe and wonder.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

shhhh

I’m back!

It seems like forever since I last wrote any bloggerel, and some of you may think it’s still too soon. No matter, I will follow my usual pattern and ignore the wishes of my readers – all three of you.

I have just come back from the last of my sabbatical visits. I have been visiting different Baptist churches across the country and talking with the leaders to listen to their stories of how they have adapted to, changed because of, and prepared for growth. It has been very encouraging and inspiring to do this and it is interesting to discover that there are similar themes in all of their stories.

No, this does not mean I am about to write a new bestseller on church growth. If I did it would be silly: perhaps led by dolphins and called ‘The Porpoise-Driven Church’ or about using air-to-air missiles in a ‘heat-seeker sensitive church’. But it does appear that there are some themes that may be helpful to us at our church.

And at the moment I am not going to tell you.

That’s not only because I am mean, but also because these thoughts are still a bit vague and woolly (yes I know that’s not stopped me before) and I feel it’s most appropriate to share them with the church leaders and wider church before I consider releasing them into the wild untamed blogosphere.

‘So, what’s the point of reading this bloggage?’ I hear you ask. (A very good question).

The point is that I have found God speaking consistent themes to me through various different sources:

Through my reading of 1 and 2 Timothy on my retreat; through many of the books I have read (‘sacred’ and ‘secular’); through the conversations I have had; through my observations and musings and through bouncing ideas and concepts off people. It is my experience that sometimes when I want to hear from God all I get is a deafening silence or the sound of Spiritual static. And other times I hear so much from different places that I almost hold my hands up in surrender and give in.

The silence / Spiritual static is a tough one. Sometimes that happens when we are at our weakest, our lowest, our most vulnerable. It’s reminiscent of the depressed prophet Elijah who found God in the ‘sound of sheer silence’. I wonder if at times God keeps silent vigil with us because words would be unhelpful.

As a teenager we had a Labrador, Bonnie, who was the family dog. I spent most time with her and walked her and she was a faithful companion to me. There were times when I was low and it was as if she sensed it. She would gently stroll up to where I was and nuzzle me. She might put her head on my lap if I was sitting down and look up at me. Or sometimes she would come and lie down on my feet (having turned around three times first). She would know that I did not want or need ‘bouncy dog’ or ‘playful dog’. It was as if she knew that I would simply appreciate the company.

There’s an element of that in what I am trying to describe about God’s silence. My experience is that sometimes I sense God’s presence nuzzling me in that way and it often sends a shiver down my spine. At other times I experience him through other people – directly as they are with me or indirectly through a song they have recorded or a book that they have written.

Or maybe we should pause and reflect and see if we can sense God smiling at us. I think many people think of him scowling and angry, but I reckon he smiles most of the time.

Of course there are times when we want to hear words, advice, answers and the hiss of static is all we receive. Perhaps it’s because we have tuned God out a bit and need to get back in practice at listening to him. It is possible that we are not listening to the right voice – he may be speaking to us through someone else or through a song and we are determined to hear him in our heads or in the pages of the Bible.

And yes, I think there are times when it’s just silence and static. It’s not that God is not there: it may be that the best thing for us is to pause, be still, relax and wait rather than rushing ahead with our plans and responses. Perhaps the only way God can do that is to keep quiet, like a teacher in a noisy classroom who stops talking and holds her hand up while waiting for the children to notice and join in.

When I was at Primary School (aged about 6) I had a teacher called Miss Bagley. On the last day before the Easter holidays one of the children in my class had given her an Easter Egg. Miss Bagley was bringing the day to a close and saying a few final words when I blurted out, “Don’t forget to eat your Easter Egg!”

Poor Miss Bagley had had a long term and I had interrupted her. Uncharacteristically she responded by saying, “Oh, be quiet you gasbag!”

I was stunned initially. I could not believe that she had said that to me. But by the time I met my Mum at the school gate I was in floods of tears. I was almost inconsolable at the thought that Miss Bagley had called me a gasbag. My Mum eventually got a vaguely comprehensible answer out of me and we went back into the school where I apologised for interrupting and Miss Bagley apologised for calling me a gasbag. (The irony of her name and the epithet she gave me did not strike me until I just wrote this down!)

Nearly 40 years later I still remember that moment. Miss Bagley had had to resort to drastic measures to make me stop and listen. Thankfully God doesn’t (often) call me a gasbag, but he may resort to drastic measures.

Just a thought.

Be blessed, be a blessing.