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

 

stone-faced

I was just innocently browsing my news feed on Facebook (other social media sites are available, apparently) and was struck by something someone had posted: they said that they were no longer welcome in a particular church.

Now, I do not know the person in question. I do not know any of the context. So I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. Except I have. Two of them.

The first one is to think about the impact of that statement on those who will read it. For some it will confirm all of their negative prejudices about church. For others it will generate sympathy and empathy. For anyone who is a part of the church in question it might generate other emotions and reactions. For me it provoked a visceral response.

The second conclusion is to ask myself (bearing in mind I don’t know any of the context) how a situation could have deteriorated in a church so badly that someone was no longer welcome. I can understand someone getting banned from a pub for drunken behaviour. I can understand someone getting banned from a football stadium for racist abuse or throwing coins at players. But churches are supposed to be places of grace: the people who are the church should be more acutely aware of their own failings and how dependent they are on God’s grace.

I know that churches are made up of people, and that we are all flawed human beings. But we are not flawed human beings who simply shrug our shoulders, tell ourselves that this is how we are, and justify appalling behaviour towards one another. We are flawed human beings in whom God’s Spirit is at work (if we let him) to change us by accentuating God’s positive attributes and eroding our negative attitudes and behaviour. Slowly but surely we should be being changed to become more like the people God intended us to be when he drew up the blueprints.

I am not apportioning blame or insinuating anything about the situation I mentioned. But when we have got to the point as churches when someone is banned (or feels unwelcome) surely we need to look again at the prophet drawing in the sand and listen to what he had to say about lobbing stones at other people (John 8:1-11).

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Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Be blessed, be a blessing

fingerpoints

DESCRIPTION: Man with eyepatch pointing excitedly at other man's eye CAPTION: YES, I HAD THE PLANK REMOVED FROM MY EYE AND NOW I CAN FINALLY TELL YOU THAT YOU HAVE A SPECK IN YOURS THAT’S BEEN DRIVING ME NUTS!This cartoon is both funny and disturbing at the the same time. It’s funny in the same way that it was funny when Jesus gave the original teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

It’s absurd to think that someone would ignore a plank in their own eye and focus on the speck of sawdust in someone else’s… as much as anything else, how would you see the speck if you have a plank in yours? And how could you ignore a plank in your eye?

But the problem is that he hit the nail on the head. We do. We focus on the faults that others have and ignore our own. We are very keen to point the finger at others while forgetting that three other fingers are pointing at us (try it).

It disturbs me that nearly 2000 years after Jesus gave that teaching we still have not taken it to heart. And by ‘we’ I mean Christians. And by ‘we’ I include myself.

How can it be possible that churches that follow the teaching of the Source of Grace and which is full of people who have received forgiveness that was achieved at the ultimate cost (see Easter for details) can be also people who judge others, who are willing to exclude people on that basis, and who are quicker to condemn than we are to forgive?

Let me update one of Jesus’ parables to illustrate (Matthew 18:21ff if you want to read it in the original form).

Simon was in a state of panic that left him in a cold sweat. He was a broker and that morning had bought some stock in the expectation that it would rise in value but instead it had plummeted. In order to try to cover his losses he used his firm’s money to make riskier and riskier (and shadier) investments which had higher and higher possible yields but which had instead lost more and more money. And now, at the end of the day, he had made losses that amounted to millions of pounds.

His activity had alerted his boss, who summoned him to his office. His boss had a print out of the day’s activities and Simon’s were highlighted in red. There was no denying what he had done. His boss spoke calmly (which scared Simon even more) as he set out the situation: Simon’s activities had tarnished the firm’s reputation, would cost them a fortune, and could land him in trouble with the law. Simon had no way of repaying the money and his boss told him that he was going to fire him, he would make sure that Simon never worked again in the stockbroking business and that the firm would be suing him to recover anything they could from him to cover their losses, considering the massive bonuses he had had in the past.

Simon realised that not only would he lose his job, but he would lose his house and perhaps even his family. He pleaded with his boss to allow him to give him another chance and allow him to try to work (legally and sensibly) under supervision to recover the losses.

His boss saw how sorry Simon was and decided to give him that second chance. Simon breathed a huge sigh of relief. With tears in his eyes he left his boss’s office, determined to do better.

As he wandered back to his office he saw one of his colleagues, Julie, who asked him if he was going to join the rest of them for a drink. Simon remembered that Julie owed him £25 he had lent her for the cab fare home last week, and she had not made any attempt to repay it.

How could Julie forget that she owed Simon £25? He had lent it out of the kindness of his heart so she didn’t have to walk home alone but she had forgotten all about it. Simon decided to tell Julie how it was in front of the whole office – he wanted everyone to know what had happened.

“Listen, everyone,” Simon said loudly so everyone could hear. “Last week I lent Julie £25 for a cab fare home and she hasn’t repaid me yet.”

Everyone was listening now, looking forward to the public humiliation that was to follow.

“But just now our boss gave me a second chance after I had blown a fortune today. So how can I worry about £25? Julie, consider it a gift – I am glad you got home safely.”

When Jesus told the story the major debtor did not forgive the minor one. The injustice of the situation was obvious because the lack of mercy of the major debtor clashed with the boss’s mercy. I have changed the ending because I fear that nowadays the clash is between Simon’s mercy and our expectation that he would not be merciful because we know Jesus’ story and because we like …

My concern is that the way we Christians behave sometimes suggests that we have we taken the unmerciful servant’s actions in Jesus’ version as an example to follow rather than a lesson to learn. Surely we should be ‘grace-rich’ environments?

Be blessed, be a blessing

in finite resources

emptyWe are constantly reminded that this planet’s resources are finite. There is only a limited amount of oil and gas in the ground. There is only so much ore to be mined. There are only so many things that can be made. Even the Sun will run out eventually (although not for a loooong time!). This is why there is a growing awareness of the need to recycle our resources and why, for example, fuel consumption is becoming more important (or at least as important) in car design.

But I am also worried about another shortage.

What if there was a grace shortage? What if God ran out of grace for us?

One of the phrases from the Bible that has been really meaningful to me is from 2 Corinthians 12 verse 9: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’

It was God’s response to Paul’s fervent prayer to take away something he called ‘a thorn in his flesh’. I relate to it in many ways, not the least of which was when I had a constant migraine for about 10 years. I prayed that it would stop but in response I felt I received ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’

God gave me the grace and power to cope.

And of course we need God’s grace constantly – his grace is shown in his desire to forgive us even when we ignore him or deliberately do things we know are not what he wants. His grace is revealed in the way he is so patient with us. And so many more ways.

But what if it ran out?

Thankfully there is no sign that it will: we can never exhaust God’s grace.

But do we sometimes run out of grace? I sometimes lack grace in the way I am with others. I sometimes lack grace in the way I deal with adversity. I sometimes lack grace in the way I respond to criticism.

When I do, I need to refill from the infinite fountain of grace. At those times I need to go back to the limitless grace of God and ask not only for a fresh outpouring on me, but also in me and through me.

‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’

Be blessed, be a blessing

Mull of inspire

(Please excuse the corny title, I couldn’t resist.)

SONY DSCA long time ago in a church far, far away I received a letter in the post. It was a rather critical letter. My friend and colleague in the church, David, had been sent a copy of the letter and as soon as he got his he phoned me and urged me not to respond for 24 hours and then to meet with him prior to doing so.

I took his advice.

I mulled for 24 hours (which is shorthand for thinking, praying, agonising, worrying, praying, feeling upset and trying to listen to what God might be saying). After that period of time I met with David and he suggested that I look again at the letter and see where there was truth, where there was inaccuracy, where there were misunderstandings and where it was unkind. His suggestion was to reply in a letter, but to lace the letter with grace. Endorse the truth (and apologise if necessary), gently correct inaccuracies, clarify misunderstandings and pray forgiveness over the unkindness but don’t respond to it.

I wasn’t sure about that approach because I was still smarting from some of the comments, but because I trusted his wisdom and judgement I attempted to follow what he had advised.

Truth is always truth. It does not change and is worth endorsing and affirming even if it shows up our failings and inadequacies. If we take the time to mull on challenges, even those that sting, God’s Spirit can minister truth to us.

It is worth correcting inaccurate statements. Not to prove that you are right, but so that the other person may be able to evaluate the situation more accurately and won’t appear silly if they rely on something that is wrong. But this is about inaccuracies of fact, not opinion. If I have a different opinion to someone else that is something that needs to be discussed not enforced on them.

Misunderstandings are a bit like inaccuracies, but I try to treat them as a failure on my part to communicate clearly enough. If I can clarify what I am trying to say then it will make it easier for the other person to understand me, even if they still don’t agree with me.

And responding to unkindness with forgiveness? Well Someone once said that we should ‘turn the other cheek’ – it is a way of defusing anger and diffusing tension. To respond in kind to the unkind just escalates and antagonises. To refuse to retaliate is to emulate Jesus and that’s well worth doing.

I am so glad I listened to David and mulled because it inspired* me to write a very different letter to the one I would have written had I replied immediately. I believe God used my reply to help change that person’s perspective so that they could see the issue that was the subject of the initial letter differently. When it was ultimately brought to a Church Meeting they actually voted in favour of the issue that they had been so strongly against in the letter!

It’s not new. It’s age-old wisdom. Thousands of years ago in the Book of Proverbs (15:1) we read:

A tender answer turns away rage,
but a prickly reply spikes anger**.

And remember that if someone’s words to you appear sharp it may be because they are trying to squeeze them in edge-ways!

Be blessed, be a blessing

* hence the title!

**from The Voice translation

 

dis-graceful

Context Menu
Apparently this is known as a ‘context menu’

Context makes a big difference doesn’t it?

This morning I looked at a famous passage in one of Paul’s letters, written to a bunch of Christians in a church in Philippi, Greece:

Final exhortations

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

It’s always worth remembering that this was written to a group of Christians (aka a church) not an individual, even though we often individualise and personalise it. If we are to be like that together it seems to assume a strong mutual accountability and closeness of relationship. That becomes clearer when you set this passage in the context of the letter from which it is taken. Immediately prior to writing these inspirational words Paul had to write a section about two women who had fallen out with each other. He asked the church leader (and because this would have been read out to the church, by extension to everyone in the church) to help them sort out their disagreement. And it seems to me that the rejoicing always and focusing on the positive things in life are ways in which we can do that – put the disagreement in the context of all that God has done for us, all the blessings we receive, the positive godly character of the one with whom we have a disagreement.

This is not an autocratic injunction from ‘on high’ but comes from affection and a deep friendship. Paul ‘pleads’ with the two women ‘to be of the same mind in the Lord’. To give us more context it’s worth remembering that the church in Philippi was the first church founded in Europe and Paul seems to have a great affection for the relatively new believers there – read the opening 11 verses of chapter 1 and you’ll see what I mean. It broke his heart to hear how two of his friends, relatively new Christians, had fallen out and he wanted the rest of the church to help them come to a Godly resolution.

What a contrast to how some churches treated ‘discipline’ in the past. If you read records of Baptist Church Meetings from a couple of centuries ago you will read of how people were excluded from membership or receiving communion because (for example) they had been seen coming out of a theatre, or had been drunk in the street. Admittedly there may have been a lot of pastoral care that is unrecorded but the records suggest a harsh, puritanical, judgemental attitude and swift action to ‘expel the immoral brother’. That approach is dis-graceful – removing grace.

I have seen some of these records and while I don’t condone when people have ‘fallen from grace’ I would also want to emphasis grace as a response.  Churches should be places of grace, or to use a phrase I came up with a while ago, ‘Grace-rich environments’. And since I started off talking about context, we need to remember that we are all in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, and fresh starts are always available to everyone, so let’s help one another to be free samples of the One who was grace personified.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

amazing grace

Being the pastor of a church is an incredible privilege. I am able to share in the joys and sorrows of people’s lives and offer support, encouragement, prayer, and seek to point people in God’s direction.

I have often been asked (usually by young people) what my favourite Bible passage or verse is. I used to say the resurrection narratives in Luke, or perhaps God’s call to Isaiah in Isaiah 6. But that is changing. It was changed by the experience of chronic migraine that has been a constant companion for the past 11 years. It was changed by the experience of pastoring people.

My favourite passage is now 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

9 But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

amazing grace

Paul has revealed that there is a ‘thorn in the flesh’ that he is experiencing that is tormenting him. We don’t know what that is – physical pain, emotional turmoil, criticism, opposition… – but we can sense from the preceding verses that this is something that did not come from God but that God was using to stop him from becoming conceited. Paul says that he pleaded with the Lord to take it away. Jesus’ response is in verse 9.

To those who are going through difficult times in their life I offer this encouragement from Jesus: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

To those in pain: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

To those who are bereft: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

To those who are alone: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

To those who are angry: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

To those who are doubting: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

To those who are struggling with ‘sin’: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

To those who are left bewildered by life: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

To those who need to know forgiveness: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

To those who would like to be able to forgive others but can’t: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

How do we experience that grace? My experience is that the second part of Jesus’ response is true – he makes up what we lack. When we admit we can’t cope he comes alongside us. His Spirit in us ministers to us. He brings people alongside us to encourage us. He provides shafts of sunlight that burst through the clouds. He reminds us that he is the source of Hope.

If you need to hear those words today, ask God to let them resonate through your mind, through your circumstances and into your soul. If someone else needs to hear them, why don’t you speak those words to them?

Be blessed, be a blessing.