choices

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Modern life seems to be defined by choice. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we drop off in the evening we are faced with choices:

Do I get out of bed?

What do I have for breakfast?

What do I wear today?

And so on. It seems to me that the more we are trying to make life ‘better’ for ourselves the more choices we have. For example:

When I was growing up you could count the number of available television channels on the fingers of one hand and still have one left to stick in your ear. Today you run out of digits on the first screen of choices as you scroll through the TV guide. And we have to decide which sort of mobile phone we will have – are we android or apple (or are we going to subvert the system by going for something more obscure?)? And then we have to choose the apps we want. And we have to choose passwords… so many passwords! And on your computer what web browser are you going to choose?

I don’t have to keep listing them, you know what I am talking about. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Dumbledore seeks to reassure Harry that he is not the same as Tom Riddle (aka Voldemort): “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

And he is right. We are defined and shaped by the choices we make. How others see us will be in the light of those choices as well as through the lens of the choices they have made.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise that we have made a choice. ‘Default settings’ that almost every appliance and gadget and piece of equipment come with are necessary as a starting point for users unless they are to boot them up from scratch, but if we blindly accept them (a choice) we find that someone else has decided what our user experience will be.

And sometimes we make a choice by not choosing anything. If you choose not to vote in an election you are choosing not to participate in the democratic process and must accept that your views are not part of the final outcome. Your choice is to accept that others will decide for you.

There are occasions, of course, when we don’t know that we have made a choice, or we make it unthinkingly. How many times have you accepted the terms and conditions of a website, an app, or a computer program without reading them fully? Of course you have. Nobody has the time to read them all from start to finish. You assume that they are benevolent and innocent.

And I have a feeling that most people have an automatic reaction to thinking about God. Instinctively we click ‘ignore’ because we don’t think we have time for him, or we don’t want believing in him to disrupt our life, or we don’t like the version of God that we have been presented with, or it all seems far too difficult and complex to consider… or… or…

I believe that many people have not given him any more thought than they have the terms and conditions of the latest app they have installed on their phone and have instinctively decided that they don’t want to. Until they are faced with more significant moments in their life when they feel out of their depth and want the comfort of praying to someone or the reassurance of the possibility of divine intervention on their behalf. Or until they meet someone whose relationship with God seems so different to their assumptions about him that they are intrigued and want to know more. Or until someone they know and trust starts to talk about God. Or even until they read some random bloggage on an even more random site…

So have you adopted a ‘default’ setting when it comes to God? Jesus tried to make it really simple for us to make a choice: “Follow me.”

If you are a follower of Jesus is it obvious (in a good way) to people around you?

 

courageous reasoning

With all the love, grace and encouragement I can muster I want to ask you to bear with me and read this bloggage to the end. It may be the most important one I have ever written.

One of the things that an imminent operation on your heart does for you is force you to face your own mortality. I have the utmost confidence in the surgeon and his team and have been assured that the risks of the surgery are minimal, but they are there nonetheless. I have had to think about and prepare for that very small possibility.

Christians believe in life after death (and life before death too). We don’t believe in reincarnation or hanging around as a ghost / spirit, but a full-blown life-as-God-intended no-holds-barred all-consuming experience of God for those who want it once we have curled up our tootsies and shuffled off this mortal coil. And when we come face to face with something that reminds us that we are not indestructible and that life is finite we have to consider whether we really believe what Jesus said.

That’s when the rubber hits the road as I have to consider whether I really believe what I proclaim.

rubber hits road

I want to say a wholehearted, unequivocal “YES!” I believe it with all my heart, mind and soul. I have staked my life on it.

One of my favourite definitions of faith is: “Reason in a courageous mood.”* You take what you can deduce, what you can learn, what you can understand and then extrapolate from that to the next logical step, and that extrapolation leads you to take a step of faith – following the trajectory of your thinking and understanding and acting on it.

So, by way of example, if you had to cross a ravine and there was a bridge there you would need to exercise faith in the bridge in order to use it and cross the ravine. Before you did you might examine the bridge to see how strong it is, you might ask other people who have used the bridge and you might even research online how and when it was constructed. But once you had come to the conclusion that it is strong enough for you to use safely you then have to take the step of faith and put that reasoning into practice by crossing the bridge. And you are encouraged when that faith is vindicated and the bridge holds.

All that I have read, considered, discerned and understood about Jesus of Nazareth confirms to me that I believe him and I believe in him. What he said makes incredible sense. What the contemporary records say about him reveal an extraordinary person. And the evidence for his resurrection is (in my view) pretty conclusive. All that points me to the conclusion that he is who he claimed to be: God with us. He is worth following and trusting and through faith in him I am able to have a relationship with God that is life in all its fullness now and beyond death. My reason has become courageous and I have been blessed, inspired and encouraged to find that this faith has been vindicated.

I want to say a hearty “Amen, amen, amen!” to these words written by Paul to the early church in Rome (Romans 8):

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? [If you read the preceding verses you see that ‘these things’ are pain, suffering and death.] If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

‘For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’[j]

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You have to make your own mind up about this, but please do so on an informed basis. Faith may be reason in a courageous mood but for many people lack of faith is not cowardly reason, it’s simply that they have never considered it. The difficult thing is that although you can investigate, research, discuss, listen and discern about the Christian faith, ultimately you’ll only experience it in its fullness by taking the step of faith. It’s like a stained-glass window. From the outside you can see lots of the shapes and images in a stained-glass window but you will only really experience it in all its glory once you go inside a church and look at the light shining through it – that’s the way they were designed.

stained glass 3

If you would not say that you are a follower of Jesus and if you consider me to be someone you trust then I want to encourage you to consider his claims carefully and investigate them for yourself. Then you can decide whether to get courageous with the reason.

If you are a follower of Jesus, don’t privatise your faith – live it 24/7. If it’s good news for you it’s good news for everyone.

If maybe you are a follower of Jesus but you’ve not been actively following him you will know that he would love to welcome you back into a closer walk with him – you only have to take the first step and you’ll find that he’s already there with you.

If you have never considered these things I hope and pray that we could have a conversation about it once I have recovered from the operation, but don’t feel you have to wait for that moment – talk with another Christian.

The reason I believe all of this is not because I am a Baptist Minister. I am a Baptist Minister because I believe that this is the most important thing in life (and death) and it’s worth dedicating my life to.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I believe this is attributed to LP Jacks from 1928, but I first heard it from one of my spiritual heroes, friends and Senior Minister in my first church: Revd David Richardson

worn out or worn in?

tennis ballDon’t you feel sorry for the groundsmen at the  Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships? Before play began on Monday they must have worked tirelessly to get the courts into pristine condition. The grass was perfect, the lines were precise so that it was looking at its absolute best. This comes from the Wimbledon website:

It takes around 15 months to prepare a Championships’ standard court before it can be played on.

This is the process:

  • The courts are constructed and seeded in April
  • The courts will then be cut once the new grass reaches 15mm, and then cut three times a week in May to keep at 15mm
  • During The Championships the height of grass will be 8mm, it will be cut every day
  • For the remainder of the summer the courts will only be cut three times a week and watered as they need to mature and naturally firm up
  • At the end of summer six tonnes of soil will be put on each court to make sure the playing surfaces are level
  • In the spring of 2015 Courts 14 and 15 will be included into the pre-Championships programme of grass court preparation
  • The height of cut will be reduced from their winter height of 13mm to the playing height of 8mm, this starts in March and will be ready for Members’ day in May
  • In early May we put the white line markings on the courts
  • During the playing season the grass is cut every other day
  • The courts will get rolled once a week in May with a one-tonne roller to firm the surface so that it is ready to play on
  • In June we start to restrict the amount of water we put on the courts, this also helps firm the surface
  • During The Championships we cut the courts and mark out the lines every day
  • We put a little bit of water on the courts at night during The Championships to help the grass survive

Wow! What a lot of effort to get the courts into top condition – and as soon as the first match starts to be played the courts deteriorate. By the end of the Championships there are very obvious bare patches where the players have been running and sliding and turning. The courts look nothing like they did at the start.

Does it break the hearts of the head groundsman, Neil Stubley, and his team when they see the condition of the courts at the end of the fortnight?

Or do they look on it as a job well done and rejoice because the courts have been used for the purpose for which they were laid and tended and grown? Do they feel glad that the players had good courts on which to play, that the crowds enjoyed themselves and that the event was a success? The courts may be worn, looking the worse for wear and rather shabby, but they will have done what they were designed to do. They could have refused to let anyone play on the courts and preserve them in top condition, but that is not what the courts are designed for.

Do we sometimes put more effort into preserving appearances and making sure everything looks good, not risking anything and trying to remain untouched by life rather than allowing ourselves to fulfil the purpose for which we exist, getting on with it and accepting that this will wear us down, that we will not be the same.

There’s a cheesy old joke that the first historical mention of tennis is in the Bible – Genesis 41:46 – “Joseph was thirty years old when he served in Pharaoh’s court.” [groan] But if you read Joseph’s story you will see someone who took a lot of knocks in life, was definitely not kept in pristine condition, but at the end of the narrative could say to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20) He may not have played tennis, but he certainly knew that his purpose was to be the person God called him to be in whatever circumstances he found himself.

So who and where are the people who need you to get alongside them, support them, encourage them and get stuck in with them? In whose court are you serving? And how are you tended and renewed? The Head Groundsman of life has given us his Spirit to tend us, help repair us, support us and encourage us as we fulfil our purpose (if we seek him). How do you think he feels when we seek to preserve ourselves and keep ourselves in pristine condition (untouched by life) instead?

Be blessed, be a blessing

the guardian angel of credit cards

little angelAfter some unexpected (and probably computer-error-generated) activity on my credit card I decided that it was safest to have the old card replaced. That all happened smoothly, but it also included getting a new PIN. Now I don’t know about you but I have so many 4 digit numbers bouncing around in my head that I didn’t want another one, but it was a necessary part of making sure that my account was secure.

The problem is that I can’t remember the new PIN. To misquote Eric Morecambe, I can remember all the right numbers, but not necessarily in the right order. I can check this, and I have done, but somehow the order remains elusive.

I wanted to use my credit card today and confidently put it into the machine at the till, and hesitantly put in the PIN I remembered. It was wrong. I decided that, rather than risk having the card disabled and having to get a new one again, I would use a debit card that I was confident about. All was well.

Then, as I was driving home, I had a call from an unknown number on my hands free phone. It was a very nice lady from my credit card company checking to see whether I had been trying (unsuccessfully) to use my card. I found it very reassuring that their system was monitoring me and my activity and had decided that the unusual activity was worth checking out in person. It’s nice to know that my credit card has a guardian angel.

I think lots of people like the idea of having a guardian angel – some holy being that is watching out for us: making sure we don’t trip up and fall flat on our face (literally or metaphorically). I have heard people talk about how their guardian angel must have been with them when they had a narrow escape from a dangerous situation.

Now I am not really convinced about guardian angels. This is why: if I have a guardian angel, then he/she/it is not doing a very good job. I do trip up and fall flat on my face (literally and metaphorically). I do get ill. Things do go wrong. Sometimes I don’t escape from a dangerous situation (narrowly or otherwise).

And I struggle to find evidence for one in the Bible. Indeed Jesus insisted on several occasions that if we follow him we can expect all sorts of hardship, which suggests that if they exist guardian angels become redundant when you become a Christian.

We all know that life can be tough. We all know that relationships can be difficult. We all know that sometimes we get ill. Life is not a continuous procession of joy, happiness and victory. (Before you get too depressed let me say that it’s not all misery and doom too!) Jesus never promised that it would be different. When he spoke about bringing people ‘life in all its fullness’ I don’t think he was saying that it would be a life of fluffy bunnies and cushions wherever we land. I think he was saying that it will be a life like everyone else’s with a balance of joys and sorrows (for better and for worse) but with the added dimension of experiencing God’s presence and perspective on things.

There’s a slightly fatalistic Hebrew proverb (not in the Bible) – “This too shall pass.” ‘Life in all its fullness’ has an element of ‘there’s a better future’ but it has much more to do with experiencing and living life as God intended it to be lived – with him, in him, through him. That’s what the Holy Spirit does for us and in us and with us and through us.

I suspect that instead of a guardian angel around us, what people are experiencing is a touch, a free sample, an inkling, an awareness that God is for us and that his Spirit is at work in us even before we are aware of him.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Life, liberty and…

During my first sabbatical leave, over 9 years ago, I tried to work out what might be a common belief amongst people. I distilled something along the lines of ‘I should be happy.’ It may be expressed in many different ways but I still reckon that is not a long way from the truth.

Mych human behaviour can be explained as attempts at fulfilling that belief. And if it’s such a fundamental driving force it explains why many people are willing to go to great lengths in pursuit of what they hope will satisfy that urge to be happy.

We seek to fulfil it in relationships: healthy and unhealthy; we seek the help of chemicals to simulate and stimulate it; we have a massive entertainment industry to help us engage with it; we exploit other people in pursuit of it; we seek to acquire wealth and possessions to try to satisfy it.

Jesus offered ‘life in all its fullness’ as the Creator’s intended answer. And (as a cynical overstatement to make a point) churches have reduced that to turning up on Sundays and watching Snogs of Praise (sic). I wonder why attendance is declining?

Be blessed, be a blessing.