Middle-Eastenders

Do you know about the book of Esther in the Bible? It’s peculiar because God is not mentioned by name, but like a toddler who has got hold of a tub of chocolate spread his fingerprints are everywhere. And the book is controversial because it is a narrative about slavery, racism and power in which what has been portrayed as a beauty contest is held to find a tyrant King a new wife and Esther, a young Jewish woman who was in Persia against her will, was selected. Was it a beauty contest when Esther didn’t have any choice, or was it something far more sinister?

Themain plot in the narrative is that the Prime Minister, Haman, decides to carry out what a genocide against the Jews who were in exile in Persia and Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, hears of the plot and persuades Esther to intervene with the King. It’s a bit like a soap opera as there is intrigue, suspense and feuding.

Image result for Xerxes I

Last week I was asked to preach on Esther 5, which is one of the key chapters in the narrative where Esther makes the first approach to the King. I called it ‘Middle-Eastenders’ as there are certainly some ‘duff-duff-duff’ drum moments! I’d encourage you to read the whole book so you get the context (it’s not very long). Here are some of my reflections:

Esther was gentle: she was not seeking status but was looking to see how she could be used where she was. We can even say that she was close to God because she fasted for 3 days before going to see the king.  

She was wise – recognising that if she jumped right in with a complaint against the Prime Minister when she was in a vulnerable position (not even sure if the King would want to see her) then she may not succeed in saving her people. She offered to serve the king (inviting him and Haman to a banquet) rather than demanding her rights.

And she was patient. It would have been very tempting to her when the king offered to be generous to her to jump right in with her main request, but she knew that the time was not right and just asked for him to attend another banquet.

I wonder who the people are who hold power over you? Of course, there are politicians who can make decisions that will affect our life, but there are also officials whose decisions affect us, perhaps when we are seeking benefits. We are subject to the authority of the police and law-enforcement agencies. And what about those who are above us at work? Or even those to whom we have given authority in our homes like a landlord?

And there is also power in a church. In Baptist churches, because we say that everyone is a minister, sometimes people seem to have made a virtue out of disrespecting and tearing down those whom God has appointed to lead us.

Esther’s example is not a blueprint, but I think we can learn that deference and respect, patience and wisdom are important and can bear fruit.

On the other hand, Haman saw power as something to be used to benefit himself: we can see from this passage that he was self-centred, focused on his own wealth and importance. He was indignant towards Mordecai when he was not given the honour that he felt he deserved. He didn’t realise that honour is not something to be demanded – that is bullying and fear – it is something you earn.

He was willing to misuse his power for his own ends. His decision to impale Mordecai on a big spike (some versions say it was gallows, but that’s not quite right) was his way of trying to make himself feel better. He did not value others, he just wanted people to look up to him. I wonder about his petulant response to Mordecai, it’s almost the actions of a playground bully. Mordecai’s non-reaction to him made him feel small so he decided to act big to make up for it.

How important is it how other people regard us? How far are we willing to go to obtain the respect? Are there lines we won’t cross, or does anything go in our desire for power? Do we ever look for a leadership role to elevate our status rather than lead by serving?

And at the risk of getting all political, consider when you look at the current candidates for PM role are they more like Esther or Haman?

the neverending story

candleI love the Christmas season. Beyond being the season of sparkle, tinsel, presents and ho, ho, ho it’s the season that is full of joy, hope, intimacy with God and the miraculous wonder of Immanuel. There’s so much in the few verses and chapters that we read at this time of year each year. Given that there are a finite number of verses in the traditional Christmas passages in the Bible you would have thought that by now we would have run out of new things to say but in 22 years of ordained Ministry I have delivered loads of Christmas talks and sermons. I may have recycled one or two but there are probably 50-60 different reflections I have given on Christmas, plus bloggages I have written here. And I have not exhausted the narrative by any stretch of God’s imagination.

Sometimes the thoughts and ideas come easily and sometimes it is a struggle to find something new. But there is always more: I have explored the idea of God in a nappy; written an all-age story based on Nora the Noisy Angel; reflected on the names given in Isaiah 9; stuck a rubber glove on my head in a Christingle (probably best not to ask); compared Caesar Augustus with Jesus and many more. I imagine that if Ministers shared the themes we have explored this year there would be hundreds of different messages. Yet all of them ultimately point towards a baby born in an outhouse and laid in a feeding trough who was born to save the world – God’s creativity is limitless in his desire to communicate with those whom he loves – it’s a neverending story!

One year we took a risk and explored the theme of ‘Disappointment’ on Christmas Day in the first church in which I ministered. We started with disappointing presents and how we say, “Thank you, it’s just what I wanted” through gritted teeth. We then explored how the virgin conception would have led to a lot of disappointment for Mary’s family and for Joseph (initially); that the manner of Jesus’ birth was a disappointment to those who were expecting a royal birth; and that for some people Christmas itself is a disappointment because of their circumstances and who may not be with them. We finished with reflecting on how, even though Jesus’ birth narrative was full of disappointment it actually was just what we wanted and that it was a moment of hope in despair and light in darkness. Many people felt disappointed with that service because it was not the usual upbeat, bouncy, happy Christmas Day service. But I will never forget the lady who came up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes as she held my hand so firmly that it almost hurt. She couldn’t find the words to say, but she didn’t need to.

I hope that you will have a joy-filled Christmas. I pray that you will find space for yourself to be refreshed and reflect on something new that God’s Spirit has revealed to you from the Christmas narratives. And I hope and pray that even if there is disappointment you will know encouragement and blessing from people whose lives God has touched through you this year.

Be blessed, be a blessing, and Happy Christmas to you all

how do you read the Bible?

How do you read the Bible?

bible genesis
Open Bibles are generally easier to read than closed ones.

That question has a range of answers from the simple: “You open the book and read the words on the pages” to the complex: “You need to understand the culture surrounding the events and you need to understand the form of literature that you are reading.”

Actually both are accurate and fair answers to that question. But I want to frame it slightly differently: do you read the Bible searching for answers to life’s problems and complexities or do you read it looking for wisdom to help you work out how to approach life’s problems and complexities? It may seem like an esoteric exercise in semantics (and tricky words) to pose the question that way but I think the answer is important because it affects how we approach life.

I have a book on my bookshelf that I have had since I was a teenager. No, it wasn’t written on a scroll, but it was published in 1978. It’s called The Answer’s In The Bible. And I think for a lot of my life that’s how I have approached the Bible – looking for answers. I have looked to find out what the Bible says about issues that I face. Sometimes, I admit, I have even naively used it to justify my own actions by taking some verses out of context as an answer (you could use Matthew 25:27 as an argument to save money in a bank and not give it away, but that’s not what the parable is about). But the Bible doesn’t have direct answers for a lot of the questions we might ask today because those things could not have been anticipated in the days in which it was written. It does not have anything to say directly about the internet, computers, cars, aeroplanes, television, space exploration and so much more that we take for granted in our 21st Century cultures and lifestyles. And the Bible’s silence on some issues causes us problems if we are just looking for answers on what to do when…

Okay Christians, put the stones down gently and step away. Or at least don’t lob them at me just yet, please – read on…

You see I do believe that the Bible gives us access to God’s wisdom which enables us to work out what to do and how to approach life’s problems and complexities. The wisdom of God is contained throughout the pages of the Bible*. But there are two overarching themes through the Bible – God’s LOVE and JUSTICE – and they are at the heart of his wisdom.

They trump anything else. And if Love and Justice seem to be in conflict then Love wins every time in the form of grace and mercy. If you want the ultimate example of it you find it in what the Bible has to say about Jesus’ death and resurrection: God’s love and justice are both involved, but love wins even as he dies. (The resurrection proves it!)

So if you decide to look for Biblical wisdom rather than answers what does the Bible say about the internet and computers, for example? Nothing directly, as I have said. But it talks (from a starting point of being loving and just) about being honest, not gossiping, not lusting, not expressing hatred for others, good administration, and a lot more. That wisdom can shape good use.

And the great thing about seeking Godly wisdom from the Bible rather than just answers is that the wisdom crosses boundaries of time, culture, geography, ethnicity and any of the other things that can make it difficult for us to apply those words to our lives today. The Bible is not a rule-book to be followed or an instruction manual to help us maintain our lives. It is God’s wisdom expressed as love and justice seen through his interaction with humanity (especially seen in Jesus where the two are combined wonderfully).

So how do you read the Bible? Searching for answers or looking for wisdom?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Even the apparently esoteric rules and regulations of Leviticus contain wisdom: not wearing clothes woven of two different kinds of thread (Leviticus 19:19) is about ensuring that clothes will last and provide value for money because when washed different threads are liable to shrinkage and may either weaken or even tear the garment, which could also lead to public embarrassment.

whispering

When I left my last church in order to take up this post a friend gave me a book. It’s The President’s Devotional by Joshua Dubois, and is a year’s devotional reflections that he wrote for President Obama and sent him in a daily email for him to read first thing every day. The thought for this Sunday is as follows:

‘“Let every one of us cultivate, in every word that issues from our mouth, absolute truth. I say cultivate, because to very few people – as may be noticed of most young children – does truth, this rigid, literal veracity, come by nature. To many, even who love it and prize it dearly in others, it comes only after the self-control, watchfulness, and bitter experience of years.” Dinah Craik, A Woman’s Thoughts About Women.

‘“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32 (ESV)

‘Truth: the sieve through which our every action must flow. Yes, it’s allowable; yes, it’s beneficial; yes, it’s profitable; but is it true? Only we know the answer – and to this standard we must keep. “Let every one of us cultivate, in every word that issues from our mouth, absolute truth.”

‘Dear God, grow within me the desire for truth in all things so that I might be set free from the bondage of falsehood. Let veracity be my nature. Amen.’

Aside from the challenge of the thought, the fact that each day the President of the USA is receiving a devotional thought like this is encouraging. It reminds me of the role of a slave (perhaps known as an Auriga) in a Roman Triumph whose role was to stand behind the victorious commander and, whilst holding a laurel crown on his head also whisper “Memento homo” in his ear – “Remember you are a man.”

seals whispering

The Bible for us can be like that slave. Through it God’s Spirit whispers in our ear and helps us to keep the right perspective:

When things are going well and we are tempted to pride and self-reliance he whispers in our ear, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;  in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

When things are tough and we are tempted to give up he whispers in our ear, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship*. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:15b-17)

Let’s always pay attention to the Spirit’s whispering in our ear through Scripture!

Be blessed, be a blessing

*‘sonship’ here indicates the bestowing of the full legal rights of an adopted male heir in Roman culture

Fed up with sermons

shocked
Photo by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600

Yes, really.

I am fed up with sermons.

That’s probably not what a Regional Minister ought to have as the title for one of his bloggages. But I am honestly fed up with sermons.

Not, I hasten to add, in the usual sense of that phrase! (Put the stones down…)

I am fed up with sermons because when I sit and listen to a sermon I get fed. Unbelievably that even happens when I am preaching a sermon myself. God’s Spirit takes the human being who is stood at the front and uses them to nourish those who are listening. (I recognise that not everybody who is sat in the congregation is actually paying attention – and nowadays you don’t even have to be present as lots of sermons are recorded and put on church websites). Somehow a miracle happens when God’s Spirit takes words that are spoken by one person and applies and interprets them into the lives of those who are listening in different ways. The same words can have a different impact. Indeed sometimes when I have been preaching he has somehow fed someone with words and meaning that I didn’t use! I believe that’s a miracle.

But I am not just fed by sermons, I am fed up. Any sermon in church that points me towards God has, in my view, achieved its purpose. It should make us look upwards. I was reminded of that on Sunday when I was speaking from John 21 and pointed out that while the message I was giving was about fresh starts, the subject of the passage is Jesus Christ – risen, meeting with his friends, renovating Peter and offering the same fresh beginnings to all who seek them. If when I preach one of my sermons it fails to make people look up (metaphorically and spiritually) then I have failed the main objective.

A long time ago there was some correspondence in The Times about the value of sermons. Someone had written a letter to ask about the point of sermons as he had been going to church for over 30 years and could not remember one of them. The correspondence went back and forth on this subject for a while with people defending or attacking sermons. The correspondence was ended when someone wrote that they had been eating Sunday lunches for the past 30 years and while they couldn’t remember any of them they were pretty sure that they had done them some good.

I like that.

It makes me smile.

It’s a gentle but wise answer, seasoned with a touch of levity.

But…

(didn’t you know there would be a ‘but’?)

How many of you eat Sunday lunch and then don’t eat anything for the rest of the week? Could you survive like that?

So why do so many Christians think they can do that spiritually?

How are you nourished daily?

There are many online resources nowadays: you can get emails daily to your email inbox from organisations like Scripture Union’s WordLive, Bible apps on your phone  or tablet like YouVersion and there are Bible websites like Bible Gateway. There’s no reason why we can’t be fed daily. Is there?

Be blessed, be a blessing

corny joke

I hope that you had a good Christmas. I hope that you found what you were hoping for – not just in a stocking, pillow case or under a tree, but in the friendships, family relationships and your relationship with God.

other makes of corned beef are available

A man went on a camping trip with his wife. He had been left to do the catering and had only brought three cans of corned beef. She was a bit miffed, but decided to let it lie. The first evening they sat down to eat and his wife was intrigued to see him get out his multi-function penknife, open out the can opener tool, and proceed to open the can with the can opener. Again, she let it lie and they ate the corned beef.

The next evening he got out the second can of corned beef, and once again opened it using his can opener tool from his penknife. His wife almost said something, but decided against it as they were having such a good time away. They ate the corned beef in silence, though.

The third night the man got out the third tin of corned beef and started to open the can opener from his penknife. His wife couldn’t resist any longer.

“Honey,” she asked gently, playing the innocent, “What’s that key on the top of the can for?”

“Silly you,” patronised the man, “That’s for people who don’t have a penknife with a can opener attachment.”

If you are one of the male of the species about now is when you will have to consider consulting the instruction manuals that came with the gadgets and presents you were given because we all know that they are like the key on a can of corned beef – just there for people who can’t work it out on their own.

But when we do consult the instructions (or more likely download them) we find that they are actually quite useful. We find out what that button actually does, you know – the one that we thought didn’t do anything. We find out about how to get the best out of the present. We find out what it can really do.

Perhaps in 2016 we should treat our Bibles less like a bloke treats an instruction manual and find out how much more God has for us…

Be blessed, be a blessing.

becoming unhinged?

On Tuesday this week I spent the day with my good friend and incredibly talented joiner, David. We were working together to create a prop for the Magic Show I have been mentioning rather a lot in my bloggages.

The prop is my design of a classic of magic (you’ll have to come along to see it). David has helped refine the design so it packs down flat for transportation and storage. It was all going well until we got to a point where we were going to attach the hinges to the lid of the box (yes there is a box involved).

Hinged DoorAt this point we reached a snag because the hinge we had bought did not work in the design. We had overlooked an apparently minor fact which turned out to be very significant. No matter how we looked at it, talked about it, bent bits, dismantled and reassembled the hinge back to front and otherwise fettled, we could not make it do what we needed it to do.

We finished the day feeling somewhat deflated that we had been defeated by something as minor as a hinge and arranged to have another go at it next week.

The following morning I woke up rather earlier than usual with an idea about how to solve the problem. It was bouncing around in my head so I decided to come downstairs and send and email with that possible solution in it to David. As I was typing the email two other possible solutions also presented themselves to me. Suddenly it became obvious how we could resolve the problem (although don’t celebrate just yet as we have not completed the build).

I felt rather pleased with myself that I had been able to think around the problem and (literally) tackle it from a different direction. I was also rather impressed with my subconscious mind that, while my body was kipping, was busy nerdling away at a solution. As I say, I am not celebrating just yet as we have not applied the solution to the problem, but it looks more hopeful as at least there is one way of solving it – there may be more!

And that’s an approach I have sometimes applied to understanding difficult things in the Bible. I may not have come up with THE correct interpretation or answer, but if there is one that works it means that there is AN answer.

DISCLAIMER: At this point please note that I am not making a case for a literal or a metaphorical understanding of the Bible. The example I am using is intended as an illustration of the principle I outlined above. I have a view but will not be letting you know what it is because some of you would not read on because you would disagree with me.

Think about the flood in Genesis and the narrative about Noah (I don’t like calling it ‘Noah’s flood’ as it wasn’t his! There was an interesting interpretation of it on BBC TV at Easter). What actually happened? Was it possible? I read a theory a while ago that has been reported here which suggested that there was a catastrophic flood in that region about 7000 years ago caused by melting of polar ice caps and the rising sea levels overwhelming the land mass in a sudden surge. (Other cultures in the area also have stories of overwhelming floods.) Now listen very carefully. I am not saying that this is exactly what happened, but it is possible -Noah’s inland boat building exploits fit with that explanation of what happened. Because there is a plausible possible explanation I don’t have to worry my brain about what happened.

The question “Did it happen exactly as the Bible said it did?” (bearing in mind that ancient history was not recorded in the same way that we record it today) can be answered: “it could have.” Hopefully both sides of the argument can agree on that and then they could get together to work on the more important part of it – what does it mean?

Because there is a possible plausible answer it also means that we can concentrate instead on what the narrative means for us today: it speaks of God’s concern for what the world he brought into being, perhaps even having something to say about rising water levels caused by global warming; it speaks of God’s sorrow at human behaviour that excludes him, and the inevitable exploitation and violence that comes from greed and that has consequences for us; it speaks of the contrast between people who seek to honour God and those who don’t care about him; it speaks of taking God seriously; it speaks of God’s promises; and (if you read on into what happened when they had disembarked and started again) I wonder if it also speaks about the human struggle to understand what has happened in the face of natural disasters (Noah became unhinged and got very drunk).

What does it say to you?

Be blessed, be a blessing