honest soul searching

This is a ‘thought for the week’ that I wrote this week for the Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association. I offer it to you for your reflection…

DSCF1884

I have been reflecting on Psalm 139 recently. To save those of you who can’t remember it entirely word-for-word I have copied it below (NIV UK)

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,’
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand –
when I awake, I am still with you.

19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

It’s an amazing poetic reflection on who we are isn’t it? When I read the psalm I find it helps me to get a healthier perspective on who I am in Christ, and who God is.

We are fully known – even before we speak God knows our thoughts and what we are going to say. We are constantly in his presence, we can never hide from him (even naked in a garden or in the belly of a great fish). He knows the way ahead even if to us it seems bleak or impossible to discern and he will hold our hand and guide us. We are the complex and complicated product of his knitting (and he doesn’t drop stitches). God’s thoughts are way beyond our counting and comprehension and yet he shares some of them with us.

And that’s often where I have wanted to stop. Or if I have to go on I prefer to jump to verse 23. Why did David have to spoil things by pouring out a litany of bile and hatred against the wicked and those he counts as his enemies? That’s not likely to end up in the latest worship song is it? But I wonder whether verses 19-22 are actually the heart of this psalm. I think that they are the reason David wrote the psalm in the first place: he wanted to be entirely honest with God and himself and set it in the context of his awareness of who he was in God.

The first 18 verses are the (wondrous, amazing, inspiring, truth-laden) preamble. If God knew him so intimately; if he was so incredibly made by God; if he could never leave God’s presence; if God knows the way ahead: then it was pointless for David to be trying to pretend to God and himself that he was not incredibly upset by some people. There was no sense in him smiling sweetly and brushing it all under the carpet to keep up appearances. He had to tell God how it really was for him. And he was livid. He couldn’t cope with the wicked, blood-soaked things he saw others doing. He couldn’t cope with how people were misusing God’s name (perhaps invoking him on their side to bolster their cause). He had genuine hatred for the way that people hated God. So he let God have it. In both senses of that phrase.

Maybe there was an element of catharsis here. Maybe it was therapeutic. Maybe it was giving it over to God. It was, above all else, honest. I believe that David also knew that there was a good chance that he had overstepped the mark in his rant… hence verses 23 and 24. He asked that God would reveal to him if there were elements in his attitude that were akin to the things he had just railed against. He didn’t want to be guilty of the things he was accusing others of doing.

If we find ourselves wanting to say, “Amen” to verses 19-22 about other people, we must also pray verses 23 and 24 about ourselves because God knows all about us we should be honest with him and with ourselves. When I read this psalm I am reminded of what Jesus had to say about specks of dust and planks, blind guides and the danger of judging others.

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Be blessed, be a blessing

squeak screech howl (i.e. feedback)

About 6 months ago I joined the Mid Essex Magical Society (or MEMS for short). They have been very welcoming and I have really enjoyed the evenings I have been able to attend. (if you are looking to do a fundraising event in Essex they can provide a good evening’s magical entertainment for you at a reasonable rate. See here for more details.)

Last night I attended a session where we had four different performers offer routines for the rest of the society to watch and then offer feedback. I was one of the four performers and offered a stage routine that I’ve never done in public before. I decided that that would probably be safest so that it was not something I was particularly attached to, but also so that it could be developed and enhanced by the feedback from the rest of the group. I was pleasantly surprised by the response from the rest of the MEMS and helped by the feedback: not only the content but also the manner in which was offered. I have some new ideas to add to and hopefully enhance the routine.

Stew the Rabbit has not yet been introduced to the MEMS
Stew the Rabbit has not yet been introduced to the MEMS

Feedback is vital if we are to be able to grow. If we don’t know how people are receiving what we are doing it is very difficult for us to know how best to address any deficiencies (and indeed we may not be aware of any deficiencies) or enhance our strengths. But receiving feedback, or at least the thought of it, can be very frightening because we place ourselves in a position of vulnerability. We have probably all experienced feedback that was poorly delivered, was unhelpfully negative or even destructive.

I think giving good feedback is an artform that requires trust on both sides, honesty, tact, humility (and perhaps humour) and a genuine desire to improve and be improved. Good feedback is not personal in its nature; seeks to enhance and build up; is thought through and reflective; and is offered as opinion not fact. That was certainly the nature of the feedback that we received last night. In one of his letters Paul wrote to a church (1 Thessalonians 5:11) that they should:

Encourage one another and build each other up…

That is a foundation for good feedback. This does not mean that we do not offer advice and comments that will identify possible weaknesses but it is not possible to say “that was rubbish” if you are seeking to encourage one another and build each other up. Instead you could say, “Do you think that it would be better if you [insert suggestion]?”

Next time I am tempted to open my mouth and offer some advice I pray that I will remember that I should encourage and build up.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

These astute visionaries (from Clean Jokes) may need to improve their feedback techniques and expand their vision somewhat.

“But what … is it good for?”
–Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
–Western Union internal memo, 1876.

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
–David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the1920s.

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
–Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.”
–Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”
–Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

“Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?”

Face - Trying to copeSo begins one of the all time classic songs, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

I had an experience where I felt like that this morning. I had a vivid dream in which I was left feeling really exasperated and upset by a fictional person in my dream. There were a lot more details, but in essence this is the dream:

In the dream Trevor Peacock, the actor who plays Jim Trott in The Vicar of Dibley, was supposed to be selling me a railway ticket but deliberately delayed it until my train had left. I was getting more and more frantic because the time for the train’s departure was getting closer and closer and he was not doing anything. Finally, just as I could see the train pulling away, he pressed the button to complete the transaction which meant that I had paid for the ticket but it was useless.

For a moment as I gained consciousness I was left wondering whether or not it was real because it was so vivid. I was left feeling the stress, strain and exasperation of the dream. The feelings it had generated were real, even though the dream was fictional.

I would rather none of you attempted to analyse my subconscious mind through that dream. I don’t think it is a dream of biblical proportions where God was trying to tell me something. I once heard dreams described as the way that, while you sleep, your mind files all that has been happening to you. I like that concept. It is quite neat and cute. But if it is true about that dream I think it is safe to say that the filing cabinet needs some attention!

So, what deep and meaningful thoughts have I gleaned as I have reflected on this today? The thought occurred to me that I can be the cause of exasperation, stress and upset for others. If they feel as badly as I felt this morning when I woke up it is something that needs to be dealt with. It might not be anything that I have intentionally done but I need God’s help to be discerning and to have the grace to respond if I have done that.

As communities of followers of Jesus we need to have the grace and courage to tell someone if we are upset by them too. It’s not easy, it can be painful, it can be awkward, but it is worth it as God pours his grace into the situation and the process of healing and reconciliation begins. And somehow, if we all have been honest and vulnerable, God takes that brokenness and makes something stronger out of it. That’s his way, of course, it’s the way of the cross.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

context

Context is everything.

“I never want to see you again” can be devastating if spoken to a person but fully understandable if spoken to a grey hair that has just been plucked from your head.

It is entirely appropriate to greet someone and say, “How are you?” when you meet them in the street but sitting in a doctor’s waiting room the same question can seem overly nosy and perhaps even unnecessary.

Thumping someone on their chest is entirely appropriate if you are attempting to give cardiac massage but can lead to a night in the police cells if that other person Is perfectly healthy.

Steaua Fans“Who are you?” is a very different question when chanted by a football crowd in the direction of the opposing fans to when you say it to a stranger in your house.

It’s also very true for the way we read the Bible. If you take a verse out of its context you can almost make it mean anything, and can certainly distort its meaning. I can still remember the adage from my days in the vicar factory: “a text without a context is a pretext.” it’s important to ask ourselves what is happening in the surrounding passages in order that we can more fully understand the passage we are considering.

In all of the above circumstances if we fail to take account of the context we may well get the wrong end of the stick. We can jump to conclusions, make assumptions and fill in any blanks in the background story in such a way that we completely misunderstand what is happening.

Hopefully you are all agreeing with me at this point because they think I’ve said anything particularly radical. So why is it that we often fail to take account of our own context? We can fail to recognise that we are too busy and wonder why our family seem a bit distant. We can ignore sin in our own life and happily dispense judgement about others (Jesus said something about planks and specks of dust didn’t he?). We can feel hurt and wronged by others and fail to recognise that we may well have caused hurt by our own failure.

At its worst this tendency has a hideous name which Jesus used for the religious leaders of his day: hypocrisy.

Have people ever said to you that they won’t go to church because churches are full of hypocrites? it’s a sobering thought. But following on from yesterday’s bloggage I think (or at least hope) but the reality is that the churches are full of people who fall short of God standards but are aware of that and are asking God to help them as they wrestle with that reality. We are people who are acutely aware of our need of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Please God always help me to be aware of my own context so that I never end up being hypocritical.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A driver is pulled over by a policeman. The police man approaches the driver’s door.

“Is there a problem Officer?”, the driver asked.

The policeman says, “Sir, you were speeding. Can I see your licence please?”

The driver responds, “I’d give it to you but I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have one?”

The man responds, “I lost it four times for drink driving.”

The policeman is shocked. “I see. Can I see your vehicle registration papers please?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

The policeman says, “Why not?”

“I stole this car.”

The officer says, “Stole it?”

The man says, “Yes, and I killed the owner.”

At this point the officer is getting irate. “You what!?”

“She’s in the boot if you want to see.”

The Officer looks at the man and slowly backs away to his car and calls for back up. Within minutes, five police cars show up, surrounding the car. A senior officer slowly approaches the car, clasping his half drawn gun.

The senior officer says “Sir, could you step out of your vehicle please!”

The man steps out of his vehicle. “Is there a problem sir?”

“One of my officers told me that you have stolen this car and murdered the owner.”

“Murdered the owner?”

The officer responds, “Yes, could you please open the boot of your car please?”

The man opens the boot, revealing nothing but an empty boot.

The officer says, “Is this your car sir?”

The man says “Yes,” and hands over the registration papers.

The officer, understandably, is quite stunned. “One of my officers claims that you do not have a driving licence.”

The man digs in his pocket revealing a wallet and hands it to the officer. The officer opens the wallet and examines the licence. He looks quite puzzled. “Thank you sir, one of my officers told me you didn’t have a licence, stole this car, and murdered the owner.”

The man replies, “I bet you he told you I was speeding, too!”

wrestlemania

Doesn’t it strike you as odd? In the midst of one of the most profound and exciting theological documents ever written we find an admission of failure by the author.

I am talking about Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is a theological gold mine, with a rich seam of gold sprinkled with priceless jewels of truth about Jesus.

And then we find this:

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.[c] 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!

Photo by ramzi hashisho, used by permission

It’s Romans chapter 7 (NIV). What was it that motivated Paul to write this very personal admission? If you read the preceding verses we see that Paul is talking about our new life in Christ. In that life we are no longer bound by the law (by which he means the codified rules and regulations of the Old Testament and the assorted regulations that had grown up around them) but we live in freedom because of Jesus. Paul is not denigrating the Old Testament law but he recognises that all it could do is bring an awareness that we have fallen short of the standards.

It seems to me that as he was dictating this letter he realised the truth that whilst we have freedom from the effects of sin in Christ and God’s Spirit is at work in us to transform us and make us more and more like Jesus, we are also prone to falling short of God standards (and the law reminds us of that). As a Christian leader, looked up to and perhaps even revered by many people, Paul was perhaps more acutely aware of his own weakness and failure. When people are put on pedestals one of the problems is that they are slightly further out of reach and imperfections and blemishes are less obvious.

Perhaps this is Paul’s attempt at ensuring that people did not put him on a pedestal and an attempt at showing everyone that even Paul struggled with sin in his life. He did not deserve to be put on a pedestal and certainly did not want to be.

If we are honest, especially those of us in Christian leadership, we all have the ability to present a shiny veneer to those around us that suggests we are sorted, close to perfection, super spiritual believers. And if we are really honest we will admit that these verses from Romans 7 resonate with us. All of us are prone to falling short of God standards. Some of us come up with new and original sins, others of us return to the same old sins.

So what’s the antidote? What are we to do about this? Well for one thing I am sure that Paul was not content with the status quo. You can see that in the last verse above where he declares himself to be a wretched man. Sin becomes more of a problem if we become used to it, are content with it, and it doesn’t bother us any more. Wrestling with sin is at least a step in the right direction because it shows that we do not like that aspect of our lives. This is not something we can do on our own, even though we wrestle. This is what Paul continues to say in the verses immediately following those I have quoted above:

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.

8 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (NIV)

I think the chapter divisions in our Bibles sometimes mask the truth. if we are reading the Bible we can often stop at the end of a chapter that when Paul wrote the letter there were no chapter divisions and his train of thought did not stop at the end of what we call chapter 7. That’s what the therefore is there for. We cannot sort out our propensity to sin and feel condemned by the law on our own. But God has done something about it.

We need not feel condemnation if we are “in Christ Jesus” because he has sorted out the condemnation of sin (the law has been fulfilled, the sentence served, guilt is unnecessary) and he gives us his Spirit to help us to sin less. I believe that the Spirit joins us in our wrestling and helps us by nudging our conscience, reminding us of Scripture, helping us to think about what Jesus might do and so on. But whilst he can help us, he does not take control of us. We still have to make the choice and still act on that decision.

So let’s have a little Romans 7 honesty and recognise that we all wrestle with the sin in our lives, nobody should be put on a pedestal, and pray for one another that we will listen to and receive the help of God’s spirit each day in our wrestling.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

sand art

I will try to tread carefully today. That’s because the subject of this bloggage is still an active court case and I do not want to be guilty of contempt of court.

Yesterday, shortly before his trial for perverting the course of justice was due to begin, Chris Huhne changed his plea from ‘not guilty’ to ‘guilty’. At first I was indignant. Why didn’t he ‘put his hands up to it’ when he was first confronted with the allegation? Then I was annoyed. Why has he wasted so much time and money (his own and that of us taxpayers) in protesting his innocence and having a trial set up only to change his plea at the last minute?

I found myself clambering onto a high horse and clothing myself in self-righteousness. He should have known better. If he knew he was guilty why has he thrown so much away over 3 points on his driving licence and a fine? I could feel myself getting quite ‘harumphy’ about it. And it didn’t help when other politicians were interviewed on TV and said that he had done the right thing by resigning as an MP. I was thinking that he should have done the right thing long before rather than playing this brinkmanship game of ‘chicken’ with the Crown Prosecution Service to see who would give in first.

true loveAnd then, to make matters even worse, an image of a man drawing in the sand came into my mind. He had been presented with someone who was clearly guilty and asked what to do. The Jewish Law said that the woman who had been caught in the act of adultery (and yes, where was the man?) should be stoned to death. But the accusers knew that Jesus would want to show compassion. They thought they had him. He either had to break the Law or condemn a woman to death.

The sand-drawing stopped. The man stood up and gently said, “The one who is without sin can throw the first stone.” Then he crouched back down and started drawing.

The baying mob went silent and slowly, one by one, they melted away until it was just the sand artist and the woman left. There was nobody to accuse, condemn, convict. Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Where did she go? Did she go back home? Did she join the other women who were part of Jesus’ nomadic group?

As I watched the doodling in the sand I thought of Chris Huhne – desperately trying to cover up a mistake with lies. I thought of how I have tried to avoid blame, how I have lied to cover my back, how I have tried to cover up my own sinfulness and present a perfect image (see yesterday’s bloggage).

I did not have a stone in my hand but I gently climbed down off my high horse, went and stood next to the man in the sand and asked him for forgiveness – and to say the same to me as he had said to the woman.

He did.

He does.

He will.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

keystone

Time for me to confess. I have a problem. It is something that clearly does not bother lots of people, but causes me some angst.

Green DoorThe problem is keystone. Not the cops from the black and white movies. But the adjusting of video projectors so that the image on the screen has vertical sides instead of resembling a trapezoid. It’s called keystone because the shape is that of a keystone that you find at the top of an arch (or apparently above a door if you look at this picture). It happens when a projector is projecting at an angle rather than straight ahead.

Most video projectors have an adjustment that enables you to change the image so that what appears on the screen is an image with vertical sides. I find it frustrating when I see one where clearly that has not been done. Recently I have been in several different places where the keystone adjustment has not been done and have had to restrain myself from toddling over to the projector and making the adjustment myself. (I didn’t, but I did consider it – how sad is that?)

Of course adjusting the keystone setting on a projector means that the image that is projected is distorted. The projector is projecting a skewed image that appears rectangular on the screen.

I have been struggling to think of a spiritual application for this confession of mine. I wonder what is at the heart of my problem? I think it might come from my time working with the Baptist Union of Great Britain when we had people who know about these things telling us about good and bad presentation techniques. It has become important to me that what we present looks as good as it can and adjusting something as simple as keystone can help. And therein lies the application. We all want to project and present an image that is as good as possible.

We keystone ourselves. What we present to other people is a distorted image of the real us. We hide some of our pain, problems, concerns and so on behind an image that presents itself as ‘normal’, ‘correct’, ‘true’. We distort reality and project a neat rectangular image to others when they ask us how we are and respond, “Fine, thanks.” Or we adjust the image that we project so that it looks to others that everything is well with us and that we don’t have any problems.

And in doing so we are not fooling ourselves and we are not fooling God. What we are doing is keeping help at arm’s length rather than receiving what’s on offer. God’s Spirit ministers to us in our deepest places, but he also ministers to us through other people. If we project a perfect image they will never know and we may be preventing God from helping us. Showing others the real ‘us’ may make us vulnerable, it’s a risk. But is the keystone-adjusted image we project better than being helped?

Be blessed, be a blessing.