Category: grace

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.

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

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kaboom?

An unresolvable conundrum is this paradox: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” Is the answer ‘kaboom’?

explosionThere is no answer that does not fundamentally change the nature of either or both of the entities. If the immovable object moves it is no longer immovable or if the unstoppable force stops it is no longer unstoppable. There is no answer that allows them both to remain unaffected by the encounter.

But couldn’t the unstoppable force change direction and avoid the immovable object? Yes. And sometimes we prefer to avoid and evade conflict. But the force remains unstoppable and the object remains immovable and the likelihood is that we have only postponed the inevitable.

So what if they just keep bashing against each other until one of them wins? Well, technically if they do that it looks like the immovable object has won because the unstoppable force has stopped, even if it keeps trying to move the object. The unstoppable force will not be happy that its progress has been stopped and the immovable object will not be happy at the constant buffeting. Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in a place where nobody is happy but nobody is willing to give in.

What if one of them wins? What if the force moves the object or the object stops the force? Well one of them is happy, but the other is not only defeated but loses its identity and no doubt resents the winner for enforcing their will over them. Sometimes we see a conflict situation as ‘winner takes all’.

What if both of them decided that they needed to change. The immovable object could become a solid object that was willing to move and make way for the force, if the force could become a powerful force that was willing to allow the object to remain in that location and not seek its destruction. I think its called ‘compromise’.

I have sometimes thought of compromise as a weakness: a situation where nobody is entirely happy with the outcome. And it is, if we remain in a ‘win/lose’ mentality. But what if we could listen to how the ‘other’ feels about the situation too? What if we could understand how we make them feel? What if they could listen to us and understand how they make us feel? What if we were willing to change our approach in order to accommodate the other?

“Com” as a prefix (rather than the web address suffix) means ‘with’, ‘together’, and ‘collaboratively’. Add to that the word ‘promise’ and it becomes a mutual agreement in which everyone is involved and to which they are all committed. In that case ‘compromise’ is not weakness – it increases the strength of a relationship that otherwise might be destroyed.

Yes, of course, I know that there are painful times where it is right for people to go their separate ways. But that in itself is also a com-promise – agreeing together to end the escalating conflict in that way.

And while compromise means we have to be willing to give rather than focusing on what we might lose or give if we focus on what we gain it becomes easier to do. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on what Paul wrote in one of his letters to one of the early churches. He tried to address a conflict situation (Philippians 4:1-9):

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

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

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. 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.

In the context of the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche he did not tell them to battle it out until one of them won, he pleaded that they would “be of the same mind in the Lord” and asked the church to help them. It was their shared faith in Jesus that would be the starting point for their compromise. What was that same mind? I think it was to look at what they would gain by changing their attitude from ‘winner takes all’ to ‘com promise’ based on what they had in common. They would gain joy, gentleness, less anxiety, and prayerful peace.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

has God become god?

I am musing about a question that has bounced around in my brain for decades. I am not suggesting that I have just come up with THE answer: I have probably just discovered some more questions. I have decided to do some God-thinking here about it. Apologies if you came to this bloggage hoping for something different.

The perpetual question is: why do Christians (me included) keep on doing wrong things? I should make clear that ‘wrong things’ covers a multitude of sins. Literally. It includes the little things that don’t bother us (such as ‘a little white lie’) through to the things that create a scandal when they become public. And everything in between.

You see if we Christians really put into practice what we say we believe surely we would not fall down flat on our moral faces, would we? If we live in a relationship with GOD (caps intended to convey bigness, majesty, divinity, and all of the rest of the attributes we would give him) and are filled with his Spirit to help us to live in a way that follows Jesus and reflects that relationship then surely we wouldn’t give in to temptation, we wouldn’t get things wrong, we wouldn’t wander from the path, we wouldn’t trip up… or any other euphemistic metaphor you want to use.

inspired“Ah,” I hear some of your say, “but God has given us all free will and that means we can choose how to live and what to do.”

Yes he has. But having free will is as much the freedom to choose to do what is right, albeit with the potential that we will choose to do what is wrong. Why don’t we always choose to do what is right? The reality of free will does not explain why Christians let themselves and God down, it just explains how it is possible.

“OK,” others say, “But add to free will the reality there is evil in the world that tempts us and seeks to distort the way God intended things and mask our experience of God.”

Again, yes. Evil has the capacity to take what is good and use it nefariously. For example, ‘leadership’ is important for human organisation and society to run smoothly. At its best it can empower, encourage and serve the well-being of all. But it can become distorted towards tyranny and even dictatorship if unchecked. The presence of evil in the world explains what is happening behind the scenes when anyone does something ‘wrong’.

But it still doesn’t explain why Christians, who have had an experience / awareness / understanding (limited) of God would give in to unwise short-term pleasures in place of doing what they know would be right. However it’s important to recognise that nobody is perfect and we are all still subject to an inherent bias away from God that we have learned and perfected throughout our life. We won’t always get it right. Read what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome in a very honest admission of his struggles (Romans 7 (NIVUK):

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

The internal battle between the old and new, between the bias towards evil and the desire to serve God, between good and evil is clear in this passage. And it’s something that I know all Christians wrestle with. We are all a work in progress. The war has been won but the battles rage on. An eventual awareness of that is what stopped people stoning a woman who’d been dragged before Jesus when caught in the act of adultery: “The one who is without sin should throw the first stone!” was Jesus’ intervention.

Maybe there’s also something biological here (and that can be distorted by evil working on our free will). We humans are organic beings and our complex systems (created to allow us to respond to outside stimuli in appropriate ways) include the capacity to experience pleasure. In his generosity of creation God has made us with the capacity to enjoy. The hormonal surge of pleasure we can experience in positive circumstances can be very powerful and even diminish our capacity to think rationally. It can distort our thinking in the heat of the moment. How often have you heard, “I wasn’t thinking” as a pseudo-defence when someone has been caught out? Is it that the pleasure-urge is so powerful that for Christians it can override our consciousness of God in the pursuit of short-term pleasure? For example, a Christian should know that gossiping about another person is wrong but the pleasure of having an audience (and their reaction to us) and being able to denigrate someone else might take over before they have thought clearly about what they are saying.

There are some things everyone would classify as wrong – murder for example. But while there is a life-sentence for murder there would be an outcry of someone was given a life-sentence for parking on a double-yellow line (it’s a no parking zone for non-Brits who may be reading this). But with God there’s no hierarchy of wrong. If it’s wrong it’s wrong. But maybe because we have a judicial system that gives different sentences for different crimes we have inadvertently allowed ourselves (maybe subconsciously) to categorise things that way for God. Perhaps we have allowed ourselves to become tolerant of some things because we deem them to be less serious offences to him. We allow the occasional lie, the hidden malicious thought, the occasional cruel mockery because the harm is not so great.

And then there’s grace. God’s grace. Christians know deep down that God loves us and if we come to him genuinely seeking forgiveness and restoration he will do that. Every time. Is the knowledge of that aspect of God’s character distorted (by evil?) to cheapen God’s grace? Do we know so much about his grace and forget how much evil is abhorrent to him? As we remind ourselves of the lengths God went to in order to deal with the problem of human rebellion against him because he loves us so much, have we lost sight of how much that human rebellion offends / hurts / injures / scandalises / exasperates God?

Yet when the rubber hits the road I can’t help wondering whether the real problem is that for many Christians God has become god. Is it possible that in a well-meaning attempt to help people understand who God is we have diminished him? Is it possible that emphasising God’s love (which can never be over-emphasised) and approachability in Jesus we have lost some of the awe and wonder? Could it be that the many other things that demand our time and attention become elevated in importance above and beyond the primacy of our relationship with God?

This may all seem rather down-beat and depressing. So let me offer some positives too. I remind myself that with free will comes the freedom to choose good as well as the freedom to choose bad – bad is not inevitable. I remind myself that God has given us his Spirit and that he does prompt us in the right direction (even if we choose to ignore him) – he counterbalances the bias towards evil and can even diminish it over time. I remind myself that love wins in the battle between good and evil. I remind myself that God’s good plan for people is that we enjoy ourselves. I remind myself that God is for LIFE and not just for Sundays and when my relationship with him is a daily, hourly, constant experience I am more likely to choose God’s way. I remind myself that I am not alone – I have family and friends who encourage and support and pray for me (as I do for them).

I remind myself that Jesus taught his followers to pray “deliver us from evil” so praying about it is a good idea to reengage myself with his help. I ask that God will help me become more aware of who he is, how he is, what he is and ever more aware of him.

It helps.

I’m not perfect. I am not sinless. I want to be. But I know that I can’t be without God’s help and that this side of eternity I will always struggle with the allure of evil, as all of us will. But please God help me so that my relationship with you deepens daily and may one of the outcomes of that be that I sin less.

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

for the victims of violence

Violence appears strong: it intimidates; it wounds; it destroys; it instils fear; it undermines; it screams; it demands; it provokes negative reactions; it kills.

And grace and love appear weak: they can be trampled underfoot; they can be ignored; they can be pushed around and taken advantage of; they can be shouted down; they can be ridiculed.

But violence cannot create unconditional loyalty; it cannot diffuse tension; it cannot calm down; it cannot relax someone; it cannot restore; it cannot build up; it cannot bring peace.

Only love and grace can do that.

Love and grace win in the end because they go to the core of a person’s being and inspire, bless, encourage, enhance, affirm, disarm, reconnect, and want the best for others. They bring about peace through the indomitable power of forgiveness.

teardrop

shame

houses-of-parliament-london-1-1515543Last night I watched ‘democracy’ in action. There was a debate in the House of Commons on the Immigration Bill and an amendment proposed by Lord Dubs that would have allowed 3000 unaccompanied children who are already in Europe to be accepted into this country. These are children who are in refugee camps across Europe and who are at risk of all sorts of exploitation, abuse and being trafficked.

The debate was impassioned, moving and (on the whole) well-informed. Sadly the House of Commons chamber wasn’t full. But then the Speaker of the House of Commons announced that the debate had run its time and it was time for ‘Division’ – when MPs vote on measures.

Suddenly, from nowhere, you could see MPs rushing through the chamber to the Division Lobbies in order to vote. MPs who were not in the Chamber to hear the arguments, the moving statements and sense the mood of the Chamber. They were coming in because they had been told which way to vote, or had already made up their minds, and so they trooped through the lobbies almost as robots and the amendment was not accepted.

294 votes to 276.

If just 10 of the MPs who voted against the amendment had changed their mind and voted in favour of it the amendment would have carried and 3000 children would now have a hope and a future.

I was deeply saddened and ashamed that our country had turned its back on these children.

Arguments against the amendment seem to be based on the ‘slippery slope’ theory – that if we let in 3000 now it will just encourage more. But that’s just daft. If my child ran and fell over, hurting their leg, I would not leave them there saying, “If I help you now it will encourage you to run again and I’ll only have to help you some more if you fall over again.”

Where’s the compassion?

Where was my MP? Mark Francois MP did not vote. He may have deliberately abstained – better than voting for – but he did not participate (this is what I wrote to him about most recently). He may have agreed with someone who was going to vote the opposite way to him that both of them would refrain from voting (it’s common practice in the Commons) – but he did not participate.

Shame.

There was one ray of hope. Will Quince, Conservative MP for my old home constituency of Colchester, sat through the whole debate (I saw him) and then, having heard what was said, changed his mind and voted against the Government. Well done!

I hope that the amendment will be coming back in a slightly different form and will be approved next time – and next time it would be great if all MPs were there to hear the debate.

How many of us have fixed views about issues and won’t change their mind, or don’t want to change their mind? How many of us only read newspapers with which we will agree? How many of us will only read books with which we will agree?

The Bible says that ‘iron sharpens iron’ – you need to be honed by interaction with those with whom you disagree.

I wonder too how many people have a fixed view about God – his existence, his opinion of them, his thoughts, and are not willing to consider any other possibilities?

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