Old Testament satnav

Image result for the man who took seven baths

When I was a child I used to love this book. It was about an Old Testament Syrian General called Naaman (you can read about him in 2 Kings 5). The story was told in rhyme and I asked for it as my bedtime story so often that I knew the whole story off by heart. My parents used to get so bored with it that they would make deliberate mistakes as they read it to try to see if I noticed. I did.

I was reminded of Naaman today, by my satnav. No, it didn’t get all ‘Old Testament’ on me: “At the roundabout take the third exit and then cross the Red Sea…” What happened was that I had installed a system update on it a while ago and ever since then it had developed a fault: when there was an instruction prior to a roundabout it used to say (for example) “Turn left, then cross the roundabout, third exit.” But after the update it just said “Turn left, then cross the roundabout.”

That was insufficient information – it meant that I didn’t know where to position my car approaching the roundabout or which way to indicate until I had got much closer to the roundabout, by which time it may have been too late. I sent an email to the support team at my satnav and explained the situation and received an email back telling me to reset the satnav.

I could not see how that would make a difference. It felt too easy. It felt like the old ‘turn it off and on again’ or ‘press ctrl+alt+delete’ approach to technical problems. I had already installed a new operating system and surely that would have involved a reset. And anyway, I didn’t want to risk losing all of the saved places that I had in the satnav.

So I wrote back to the tech support man and pointed all of this out. I wanted to know why a system reset would make a difference. I wanted a better answer.

And then I thought that perhaps the tech support man knew what he was talking about. I reckoned that maybe this was a problem they had come across before and that this was a solution that had worked. And anyway, all of my places were backed up in the cloud. And what could it hurt?

So I did a reset.

And then I reloaded my saved places and re-linked it to my phone to receive live traffic updates. And then I switched it on and set my next destination.

Lo and behold, thus spake the satnav: “Turn left, then enter the roundabout and take the third exit.” Ooh, new improved instructions and not only that but the voice was restored to the politely-spoken voice I remembered from before the update! Sarah the satnav was back to her best.

Ah. Time to eat some humble pie. I have written back to the tech support man and apologised for my attitude… I learnt a lesson in trusting others, letting go of pride and realising I don’t know everything. That was Naaman’s lesson too.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

how free is speech?

see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

One of the foundational principles of life is ‘freedom of speech’ (or freedom of expression to use the more inclusive term). In many countries it is enshrined in the Constitution and a basic ‘right’, and where it is denied by those in power it is one of the things that the people crave. It is one of the ‘self-evident’ principles of life that everyone should be free to say what they think without fear of persecution. People still die for this principle. The associated principle of ‘freedom of conscience’ (the freedom to believe whatever you want to believe) is one of the principles that drove the early Anabaptist dissenters to separate from the Established Church – Baptist Christians (should) have it in our DNA.

But even in a country that champions freedom of speech we put legal limits around it in public – those limits are defined by criminal and civil laws. You do not have the right to say things that are threatening, abusive or insulting to others. You do not have the right to say things that will incite others to hatred or violence. You do not have the right to say things that are factually incorrect about another person. If you do any of these things there are consequences: you may find that you are prosecuted or sued.

But aside from the legal sanctions that exist I think that there should be other limits on freedom of speech. Those limits are grace, love and humility.

I might disagree completely with someone else.

That is freedom of conscience.

I don’t have to agree with someone.

They don’t have to agree with me.

But if my disagreement leads me to vitriolic condemnation of that person or their position I have already lost the argument. If I resort to name-calling and insults the integrity of my position is undermined. If I insist on winning at all costs I have missed the opportunity to learn. If I misquote or am selective about what the other person has said in order to make them look silly I have only succeeded in making myself look silly. If I am motivated by prejudice it says nothing about the other person and everything about me

I can disagree. I do disagree. I seek to explain and educate. I proclaim (although that precludes conversation). I ask to be heard. I listen. I discuss. I defend. I even attack. I promote my position. But as a follower of Jesus these things need to be done with grace, love and humility. If not, see the previous paragraph.

I fervently believe in Jesus Christ, his message, his mission and his ministry. His life, death and resurrection are central to who I am, what I am and how I am. I believe that they are the most important events in human history. I would love everyone I know to share that because of what I believe. But I have no right to impose my views on others. If I resort to vitriol, condemnation, name-calling, insults, victory, misquoting or am motivated by prejudice then I have missed so much of what Jesus said and did.

You see the only time he really got angry, the only really harsh words that he had, the only stinging criticism he had was reserved for the religious leaders of his day (his own people). With everyone else he had a different approach: he invited, he explained, he illustrated, he was a living example, he laughed with, he told engaging stories, he challenged (provocatively), he was winsome, he wept with… he was loving, gracious and humble.

Speech is not free. It costs. If it is misused or abused the price we pay is the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously and the opportunity to grow and learn from others.

Please, God, may I be more like Jesus?

Be blessed, be a blessing

C3H5N3O9*

Today two of my Christian siblings are meeting for the first time. They are people who are unashamed of their faith and whose faith clearly makes a difference to how they live, how they treat others and how they are perceived by others. Everyone I know who knows who these people are speaks highly of them.

They are, in my humble opinion, good free samples of Jesus.

explosionHow do they do it? I don’t know for sure but I would imagine that they have a humble prayer life, and a heightened awareness of who Jesus Christ is. The combination of those two things is as powerful as a mixture of nitrogen and glycerine*.

A humble prayer life is one that starts from where we are rather than where we think we ought to be. It is a prayer life that recognises our dependence on God. It is a prayer life that acknowledges that all we have is as a result of his grace. This pome was inspired by another person I know who has such a prayer life:

prayerpome

I wish I could pray like Teresa:

I wish it just came to me quick

she’s so calm and serene and so godly

and I only pray like, erm, Nick.

When Teresa prays we all listen:

with ears pricked and mouths open wide

in awe at the depth of the insight

that comes from her saintly inside.

I wish I could pray like Teresa:

with words that are gentle and kind

pastorally sensitive praying

not the first thing that comes to my mind.

I wish I could pray like Teresa:

a top-notch grade 1 intercessor

while my stuttering words come weakly

in rough phrases that fail to impress her.

Teresa’s prayers are always so perfect:

fluently considered aforethoughts

that flow from her mouth like a poem

that rhymes and resonates like it ought.

I wish I could pray like Teresa:

expressing the depths of her soul.

but God doesn’t want me to be her

he just wants me to say what I think… even if it doesn’t rhyme or make much sense

And then there’s the heightened awareness of who Jesus Christ is. When people speak to me of their faith being dry or routine I always suggest (alongside other things that relate directly to their own circumstances) that they go back to reading one of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Because if our faith is based on anything it’s based on him. And if it’s not based on him, it’s based on nothing. But as we become more aware of who he is, and that HE loves us, it can be transformational.

Oh, in case you were wondering… the two Christians who are meeting today for the first time are Pope Francis 1 and Queen Elizabeth 2. Isn’t God amazing that they are my Christian brother and sister!

Be blessed, be a blessing

* nitroglycerine – it is very volatile and makes a BIG bang! (And in case the mention of this stuff here triggers alerts for national security services, welcome to you too.)

 

wooing and woeing

I think Bibles ought to have a strong warning on them, along the lines of cigarettes:

Warning: reading this book can seriously damage your religion.

I am preparing for Sunday morning today and reading a passage in Luke 11 where Jesus goes a bit ‘woe-crazy’. He ‘woed’ those who were trying to get people back into a right place with God by legalism but were neglecting the things that God thinks are most important: love and justice.

He ‘woed’ the people who believed that if only people would stick to following religious rules and regulations they would be all right, where Jesus’ message was one of grace, repentance and reconciliation with God. It’s the difference between trying to woo and impress someone by precisely following a formula from a book on dating and being in a relationship with someone where you listen to each other and love each other.

The hypocrisy Jesus was condemning is like some of the tabloid newspapers who are gleefully (and rightly) campaigning against pornography and endorsing the government plans to put filters in place while at the same time showing scantily clad men and women because it boosts sales? Have a look at these banners copied from a well known tabloid today and you will see what I mean:

sun 1 sun 2It is very easy to get carried away with the ‘woeing’ and cheer Jesus on from the sidelines: “Yes, you tell them. Point out their hypocrisy! Show them up for their religiosity! Give them the old ‘left-right’ combination: you neglect justice and you don’t love God!”

And as we join in the cheerleading we fail to notice that we can be guilty of the same things. Are we more concerned about religion than faith? Are we more concerned about the lifestyles of others than about what is going on inside ourselves? Are we hypocritical?

One of the traditional accusations against churches is that they are full of hypocrites. Well there is a difference between being a hypocrite and someone who is striving to follow Jesus and sometimes fails. One will think they are doing fine, the other is dissatisfied with sin and seeks God’s help to change. One is keen to point out the faults in others, the other knows that they need God’s grace and forgiveness. 

Please God keep me in the second group.

And to close I think there should be a second warning on Bibles:

Warning: God can transform your life if you read this book.

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

grace?

I realise that the way the media works is to give us soundbites and edited highlights in order to whet our appetite and get us interested in and raise publicity for their article, so I am trying to read this article (http://www.christiantoday.com/article/mark.driscoll.takes.aim.at.the.cowards.in.the.british.church/29159.htm) in the light of that.

But… honestly? Really? Why?

I suggest you read the article above before continuing reading this bloggerel as the rest of it may not make too much sense (or even less than normal).

Is there any point in making sweeping derogatory or even insulting statements about churches of which you have little or no knowledge? It may grab a headline, it may mean that lots of people will read the article but I would like to ask what the motivation was for the comments to be made in the first place.

It may well be that Mark Driscoll has some helpful insights to offer from his own experience in leading a church that is engaging with contemporary culture. But if I’m honest all he has done is raise my hackles and make me less likely to hear God speak through him to me. It may be that what he has said has been taken out of context, or he may even have been misquoted, if so then the journal in question owes him and us an apology.

Let me analyse some of the problems with what he has (allegedly) said:

I do not recognise the cruel and inaccurate generalisation of British clergy as “guys in dresses preaching to grandmas.” It is a cute quote and a pithy soundbite. But it is also a cheap shot and inaccurate for many reasons: for a start he is excluding a whole gender of people whom God has called into ministry; secondly there are many churches in which the clergy do not wear robes, and there are plenty of American churches in which the clergy wear robes (hasn’t he seen pictures of Rev Lovejoy in the Simpsons?); thirdly there are many people of all generations who attend British churches. Perhaps the only accurate aspect of this statement is that dresses are worn… by some female clergy (and probably grandmas). I have only worn one once in a pantomime and once when I was kidnapped by friends on the eve of my wedding and forced to wear one. No grandmas were preached to on either occasion!

He is also quoted as describing British preachers as “a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.” Words fail me (perhaps I should be more courageous and say what I really think!). Does he really believe that? How many sermons has he listened to in order to come to this conclusion? How many people has he shadowed in order to see that they lack courage and tell lies? How does describing a whole country’s clergy in this way fit with Paul’s injunction to the church in Thessalonica to “encourage one another and build each other up”? None of the preachers I know lack courage, and all endeavour to be honest and speak the truth. Perhaps the person on the other side of the Atlantic making the sweeping generalisation in print is not speaking the truth?

The article also quotes him highlighting that there isn’t “one young, good Bible teacher that is known across Britain.” Since when did fame and age come into any biblical description of the qualities for a preacher of the word? Perhaps I’ve misread Paul’s letters to Timothy?! And I would like to know what the criteria are for being a ‘young, good Bible teacher’… who is the arbiter of what is good? Who decides whether it’s biblical? Will we have do have a new reality TV show: “Preacher’s got the X-factor, get me out of here!”

I hope these quotations have been taken out of context because I struggle to believe that any fellow Christian, particularly one with such a high profile, could deliberately insult and undermine their brothers and sisters in Christ in such a way. And this is actually my main problem with the article. I wonder how a gifted communicator like Mark Driscoll can expect his message to be heard and received when he articulates it in such inflammatory and unpleasant ways. I have not heard him preach (so I could be wrong) but I seriously doubt that he insults and runs down his congregation in this way. I don’t know of any people who have been insulted into the kingdom of God and imagine he is a far more savvy and sensitive communicator than that in his church. So why is it all right to so ungracious in print to a whole country?

I am trying (and probably failing) to be more gracious than the article is in this bloggage. And I do want to try and learn something from this, so here goes: Please let me know if I am ever insulting or unpleasant in the way I communicate with you. If I make sweeping generalisations you have my permission to point out the error of my ways. And if I am ever guilty of saying or writing something unkind in a controversial headline-grabbing way please, please, please tell me immediately. Tell me (graciously) if I lack grace.

I remember a tutor at Spurgeon’s College, the vicar factory responsible for unleashing me on the world, encouraging me to be winsome with words. Please God, make it so.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

if you need to eat humble pie, you may need to take your foot out of your mouth first…

chicken piemmmphlugh hhmmugh grimngtpgh

That is the sound of me eating some humble pie while talking with my mouth full (of foot). Yesterday I acted less than graciously towards somebody. It took my wife Sally to point this out to me. I did not notice.

And therein lies the problem. I had become so caught up in what I was doing that I had neglected courtesy and had not thought of the impact of what I had done on someone else, which may have made them look bad in front of others. Not exactly the Christlike attitude I have been seeking, nor demonstrating the Fruit of the Spirit about which I was preaching before Easter.

Sorry.

You don’t need to know the details (super-injunction is ready to launch!). The good news is that it bothered me. I think that if I get to the stage where it does not bother me I need to take a longer harder look at myself and the calling God has placed on my life.

This morning I spoke with the person concerned and they demonstrated the grace I should have shown. Bless you if you are reading this.

Sally offered me some wise advice when telling me about my ungraciousness. I share it with you in case it is helpful.

“Sometimes you need to keep quiet and think before you open your mouth.”

Bless you!

And now a joke about lawyers (who are the ones really profiting from the super-injunctions and what I used to be)

A man who was having heart trouble went to the doctor to see what his options were. Naturally, the doctor recommended a heart transplant. The man reluctantly agreed, and asked if there were any hearts immediately available, considering that money was no object. 

“I do have three hearts,” said the doctor. “The first is from an 18-year old kid, non-smoker, athletic, swimmer, with a great diet. He hit his head on the swimming pool and died. It’s £100,000.

The second is from a marathon runner, 24 years old, great condition, very strong. He got hit by a bus. It’s £150,000.

The third is from a heavy drinker, cigar smoker, and a steak lover. It’s £500,000.”

“Hey, why is that heart so expensive? He lived a terrible life!”

“Yeah, but it’s from a lawyer and never been used.”

Gates are boring (no, not a reference to Bill)

I am working on Sunday morning’s sermon. It’s on Jesus saying that he is the gate to the sheep pen (John 10). Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Bible and the riches within it to guide us, point us to Jesus and help us to get the best out of life. But Jesus, were you serious?

“I am the gate.”

viking sheep paddock
Okay, it’s a Viking sheep pen, but you get the idea

It’s not very dynamic. In fact for most of its life a gate is simply a fence that is an extension of the walls or hedges either side of it. It’s only when someone needs to go through it that it has a few minutes of dynamism before going back to being a fence. Was Jesus having an off day here? Or was he warming up? Because shortly afterwards he came out with “I am the good shepherd” which is much better. A lot more to preach on there. It’s a lot more dynamic. It’s a lot more exciting. It’s a person, not an inanimate object!

Of course, as usual, when I have dived into the passage and have been helped by commentators I realise that there is an incredible amount to the gate image. It’s about giving access, protection, nurture, safety, it facilitates the movement of sheep to graze, grow and be nourished. If you come to our place on Sunday morning, or listen on our website the week afterwards, you can expect some of those to be in the mix. And we are more like gates than the automatic doors that open as you enter the supermarket. We are more often mundane, normal, ordinary.

I have often wondered about my own occasional need to be spectacular, something which I think many of us have. Ordinary is seen as inadequate, unsatisfying. I remember when I was a law undergraduate I had a dream of me preaching on a big stage to a large group of people. It excited me. It inspired me. A wise friend suggested I consider why, and whether it was more about my ego than about what God was calling me to do or be. 

If the dream had been about me preaching to a handful of people in a church, which was my experience when I preached my first sermon a few months later, I wonder if I would have been so inspired or excited afterwards. (I should have been. I know now that the thrill is not in the number of people listening, but in the privilege of God speaking through you to someone else).

But back to you. Do you have the need to be spectacular? Does ordinary seem inadequate? Do you go ‘woohoo’ or ‘oh no’ when the church budget is mentioned in church meetings? Do you go ‘hallelujah’ when you do someone’s shopping for them, or is it a chore you could do without?

If nothing else (and there is a lot else) Jesus saying ‘I am the gate’ suggests to me that he inhabits and uses the ordinary, the mundane, the unspectacular, the boring as much as the all-singing, all-dancing, razzamatazz-delivering moments of life. Perhaps more of the former than the latter. Because there is more of that in our lives. 

Be blessed. Be a blessing.

A large, well established, Canadian lumber camp advertised that they were looking for a good Lumberjack. The very next day, a skinny little man showed up at the camp with his axe, and knocked on the head lumberjacks’ door. 

The head lumberjack took one look at the little man and told him to leave. “Just give me a chance to show you what I can do,” said the skinny man.

“Okay, see that giant redwood over there?” said the lumberjack. “Take your axe and go cut it down.”

The skinny man headed for the tree, and in five minutes he was back knocking on the lumberjack’s door.

“I cut the tree down,” said the man. The lumberjack couldn’t believe his eyes and said, “Where did you get the skill to chop down trees like that?”

“In the Sahara Forest,” replied the puny man.

“You mean the Sahara Desert,” said the lumberjack.

The little man laughed and answered back, “Oh sure, that’s what they call it now!”

when I’m calling you oo oo oo oo oo oo

“If you can be happy doing anything else, do it!”

Those were the encouraging words of my Minister when I spent some time talking with him as a teenager who was exploring the possibility that God wanted me to be a Minister too. He was trying to express to me how it is crucial to know the certainty of your calling. If there was anything else with which I would have been content then that would suggest that I was not called.

I tried not to laugh when he said that. Not because it was silly, but because as he had been talking I had a thought that frightened me. “What will I do with my life if he says he does not think I am called to be a Minister?” As I zoned back in to what he was saying he uttered the sentence above. Great timing! God timing?

There have been other occasions when someone has said something at ‘just the right time’. Around the time when I was first considering a call to the Ministry (before the above conversation) I was in a Bible Study meeting and (unusually for me) only said one thing all evening, which was to read a passage from the Bible that I had been asked to read. It was my first time with this group. I was sat next to a friend on one side and an old lady called Ivy on the other. At the end of the evening Ivy turned to me and said (out of the blue), “You’re going to be a Minister, aren’t you?”

I was gobsmacked, and suspicious. How did she know that this is what I was wrestling with? I asked her how she knew and she smiled sweetly and enigmatically said, “I just know.”

That incident has stayed with me. It is something so ‘out of the ordinary’ that I believe that it was God speaking to me through Ivy. It is an incident that God reminds me of occasionally when I may feel low or the strengths of my sense of call has waned a bit. It is also something that reminds me that God speaks through all of us. There have been occasions when I have felt a strong sense that I should say something specific to someone and have usually offered it to them very cautiously and tentatively asked them if it makes sense. It almost always does.

That’s not because I am superspiritual or special, but because God is gracious enough to speak through me to others.

So when you sense that God wants you to speak with someone (and you WILL know) – go for it. Humility is better than “Thus saith the Lord” and gentleness is better than dogmaticism. But God may want to bless / encourage / inspire / help someone through you. Be brave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernard, who is noted for his gracious manners, was awakened one morning at four forty four a.m. by his ringing telephone…

“Your dog’s barking, and it’s keeping me awake,” said an angry voice.

Bernard thanked the caller and politely asked his name and number before hanging up. 

The next morning at precisely four forty four a.m., Bernard called his neighbour back. 

“Good morning, Mr. Williams…. Just called to say that I don’t have a dog.”

pride in the name of…

Intermittent posts at present because I are lurgified.

There’s a nasty little bacterium that is making his way through the members of our family. He started with Sally (sinusitis) and then found a spot in my throat that he likes (pharyngitis). He now seems to be making his home in Hannah’s throat too.

Yesterday I went to the GP’s surgery and was impressed that my sore throat has such a fancy name. I was even more impressed when I got the prescription for ‘phenoxymethylpenicillin’. That’s quite a mouthful. The name, not the tablets: they are quite small (which seems ironic). We will find out a little later what the bacterium has managed to do to Hannah and I will be interested to see if her tablets / medicine have a fancier name than mine as she is allergic to penicillin.

These long fancy names remind me of Jesus’ call to humility. There’s no place in his kingdom for celebrities, fame and fortune-seekers, inflated egos or pride. Just good, honest humility. I think of this when I read one of the famous prophecies about Jesus:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
(Isa 9:6)

It would have been very easy to have a bit of an ego problem if that is what people were saying about you. Instead he happily used his given name, Jesus, which is a Greek form of ‘Joshua’ and would have been a very common name. Of course it also means ‘God saves’ so is even more apt and descriptive than the names of certain tins of varnish!

Be proud of your humility.

DESCRIPTION: A lawyer addressing a bunch of meek looking folks while a small crowd of unrulies throw a tantrum in the background CAPTION: THE EARTH IS YOURS, BUT, AS EXPECTED, THE NON-MEEK ARE GOING TO CONTEST THIS RULING LIKE CRAZY