Jesus told a parable about a farmer who scattered seeds and what happened when it fell on different sorts of soil (you can read it here). I have written a sequel. I hope he doesn’t mind.
A farmer went to sow some seeds in his field. He remembered that last year when he had scattered the seeds some had fallen on the path and the birds had eaten them. Some seeds had landed on rocky places where the soil was shallow and while the plants had sprouted they withered in the heat of the day because there was no moisture. Still more seeds fell among thorns which choked the wheat as it grew. But some fell on good soil and produced a wonderful yield of crops.
This year he had worked really hard. He wasn’t going to scatter any seeds onto the path for the birds, he was going to be careful at the edges. He had spent ages on his own clearing away all of the rocks and stones from the ground. It was back-breaking work which had taken him weeks to do, but he had achieved it. And then he had spent weeks clearing away all of the weeds and thorns on his own. That was hard work too, and he had the cuts on his hands to prove it. Finally he had ploughed his field to make it ready for the seeds to be sown. He was proud of all his hard work.
Today he was ready. He went out to his field. He looked at the results of all his hard work and planning. He was very pleased with himself. He reached into his bag of seeds, ready to start sowing.
Then he stopped.
His heart sank.
He couldn’t believe it.
With all of his busyness he had forgotten to get any seeds.
How often do Christians do we ‘labour in vain’ – doing lots of good work in our own strength and forgetting the most important thing – that we need God?
And how often do we do things on our own without considering whether there are other people who could help us in the hard work if only we asked?
The Eastern Baptist Association, whom I now serve as a Regional Minister, is putting together a series of thoughts that we will send out in order to help us to think through how we can engage with mission and evangelism. Each month churches will receive a parable to introduce a theme and there will also be some questions to consider. We hope that churches will share these materials within their leadership team and church perhaps in a meeting, homegroup, service or in some other way and hope to receive feedback from them afterwards that will help shape our strategic thinking about mission. What follows is our first parable, which was released into the wild last week, followed by some questions:
The land was dry and arid. It rarely rained. Because of this the desert had no vegetation and there was no shelter from the burning heat of the sun. But in the midst of the desert was an oasis, a well was fed by a spring that bubbled up from the ground. A small community had settled at the oasis and some weary travellers found refreshment and rest there. But there were other travellers who did not know about the oasis and perished in the midst of the desert.
The villagers who lived at the oasis were troubled by this. Each day they would send out search parties looking for travellers and pointing them towards the oasis where they would find water and shelter. They put up signs pointing people towards the oasis and warning travellers about the dangers of travelling in the desert.
Then one day a wise woman suggested that instead of going out to the desert to find travellers they could take water in big containers out into the desert. They loaded up the camels and took the water with them. By this means they were able to help more travellers.
Then the wise woman had an even better idea. She suggested that they should dig deep holes in the desert and fill them with water from the well. That way travellers would find water even when the villagers were not in that area.
One day a traveller found his way to the oasis. Grateful for the cool, refreshing water, he started talking with the villagers and commended them for their hard work to save the lives of travellers. But, he wondered, what if they dug irrigation channels from the oasis out into the desert? Could the desert itself be transformed?
Take some time to think about and perhaps discuss this parable with others -consider how we share the water of life.
This month we are considering Places which is the first of five areas that our mission strategy is focusing on. Questions to consider. Think about the community that your church is in and consider ways that you are or that you could engage and be a blessing within it.
Ask people within your church family (possibly in homegroups?) to share about places they are each day and pray for them in some way (you could create a list for prayer).
Sometimes churches feel ineffective in mission when actually the members are present in many places in the world which puts them in the ideal position to engage in effective Mission.
If you have any thoughts or reflections on the parable I would love to hear them.
This cartoon is both funny and disturbing at the the same time. It’s funny in the same way that it was funny when Jesus gave the original teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
It’s absurd to think that someone would ignore a plank in their own eye and focus on the speck of sawdust in someone else’s… as much as anything else, how would you see the speck if you have a plank in yours? And how could you ignore a plank in your eye?
But the problem is that he hit the nail on the head. We do. We focus on the faults that others have and ignore our own. We are very keen to point the finger at others while forgetting that three other fingers are pointing at us (try it).
It disturbs me that nearly 2000 years after Jesus gave that teaching we still have not taken it to heart. And by ‘we’ I mean Christians. And by ‘we’ I include myself.
How can it be possible that churches that follow the teaching of the Source of Grace and which is full of people who have received forgiveness that was achieved at the ultimate cost (see Easter for details) can be also people who judge others, who are willing to exclude people on that basis, and who are quicker to condemn than we are to forgive?
Let me update one of Jesus’ parables to illustrate (Matthew 18:21ff if you want to read it in the original form).
Simon was in a state of panic that left him in a cold sweat. He was a broker and that morning had bought some stock in the expectation that it would rise in value but instead it had plummeted. In order to try to cover his losses he used his firm’s money to make riskier and riskier (and shadier) investments which had higher and higher possible yields but which had instead lost more and more money. And now, at the end of the day, he had made losses that amounted to millions of pounds.
His activity had alerted his boss, who summoned him to his office. His boss had a print out of the day’s activities and Simon’s were highlighted in red. There was no denying what he had done. His boss spoke calmly (which scared Simon even more) as he set out the situation: Simon’s activities had tarnished the firm’s reputation, would cost them a fortune, and could land him in trouble with the law. Simon had no way of repaying the money and his boss told him that he was going to fire him, he would make sure that Simon never worked again in the stockbroking business and that the firm would be suing him to recover anything they could from him to cover their losses, considering the massive bonuses he had had in the past.
Simon realised that not only would he lose his job, but he would lose his house and perhaps even his family. He pleaded with his boss to allow him to give him another chance and allow him to try to work (legally and sensibly) under supervision to recover the losses.
His boss saw how sorry Simon was and decided to give him that second chance. Simon breathed a huge sigh of relief. With tears in his eyes he left his boss’s office, determined to do better.
As he wandered back to his office he saw one of his colleagues, Julie, who asked him if he was going to join the rest of them for a drink. Simon remembered that Julie owed him £25 he had lent her for the cab fare home last week, and she had not made any attempt to repay it.
How could Julie forget that she owed Simon £25? He had lent it out of the kindness of his heart so she didn’t have to walk home alone but she had forgotten all about it. Simon decided to tell Julie how it was in front of the whole office – he wanted everyone to know what had happened.
“Listen, everyone,” Simon said loudly so everyone could hear. “Last week I lent Julie £25 for a cab fare home and she hasn’t repaid me yet.”
Everyone was listening now, looking forward to the public humiliation that was to follow.
“But just now our boss gave me a second chance after I had blown a fortune today. So how can I worry about £25? Julie, consider it a gift – I am glad you got home safely.”
When Jesus told the story the major debtor did not forgive the minor one. The injustice of the situation was obvious because the lack of mercy of the major debtor clashed with the boss’s mercy. I have changed the ending because I fear that nowadays the clash is between Simon’s mercy and our expectation that he would not be merciful because we know Jesus’ story and because we like …
My concern is that the way we Christians behave sometimes suggests that we have we taken the unmerciful servant’s actions in Jesus’ version as an example to follow rather than a lesson to learn. Surely we should be ‘grace-rich’ environments?
One of the things I have quickly realised in my new role as a Regional Minister is that I am going to be spending a lot of time in my car. And I have recognised that if I am going to be spending a lot of time in the car it makes sense to ensure that it’s as comfortable an environment as possible.
I don’t mean that I will be installing a foot spa and replacing the seat with an armchair. But it is sensible to make sure that things that I will need are within reach – so that the phone holder is in a sensible place, I have space in the door pocket for Werther’s Originals (other sweets are available) and so on. In finding a sensible place for my mobile phone I also need to make sure that if I am going to use it I am doing so legally.
In the spirit of making my car accommodation as nice as possible and being compliant with the law I bought a hands-free unit that links to my phone by Bluetooth* and also sends a local FM signal that my car radio can pick up. This means thatI can stream music from my phone through the gadget to play through my car stereo speakers – enhancing and personalising my listening experience beyond the slightly less flexible CDs or impersonal Radio. It also means that when I get a call the gadget mutes the music and I can hear the call through the car stereo.
The gadget I ordered was not the most expensive on the market but it worked fine.
For about a month.
Then it became intermittent in connecting to the phone. Finally it stopped switching on altogether.
The problem was that part of the unit is supposed to be detachable so it can be placed in the most convenient place in the car, and that part of the unit is also rechargeable. However for some technical reason it stopped recharging. I contacted the seller and they advised about some possible ways to reboot it but those processes failed to reawaken the unit. So I contacted the seller again and asked what I should do.
Without hesitation the seller said that they would either replace the item or give a full refund. Because I was no longer confident with the gadget I asked for a refund and it happened almost immediately. That sort of customer service makes me much more likely to reuse that seller in the future. (For those who will worry about these things I have ordered a new (better) gadget).
So if this is some sort of parable, what’s the message?
All good parables sit in the reader’s mind gently ticking away until PING!’ a lightbulb goes off in the head. (lovely mixed metaphor there). For that reason I am reluctant to give you the answer. But I will give you some questions:
How well do you recharge, and to what or whom do you connect to do that?
How do you respond to complaints?
How likely is it that your attitude to others will attract or repel?
Be blessed, be a blessing
*Did you know that Bluetooth is so-called in honour of the 10th century Norse king Harald Bluetooth (see here for more)? It’s nice to think that in a millennium’s time there will be a communication standard called ‘Queen Elizabeth 2’…
It was a very posh do. In a very expensive restaurant. The chef had three Michelin Stars and more were expected. There was normally a waiting list of six to eight months just to get a table. But since he was also the host of the event the chef reserved the whole place for his invited guests.
It was a very posh do. The invited guests all turned up (surprising some of you) in beautiful gowns (the women) and black tie (the men). The tables were arranged in a circle so there was no top table (surprising others of you) and people were allowed to sit where they wanted. The chef had prepared an amazing menu of food for his invited guests. There were twelve courses (if you count the champagne cocktails on arrival and the after dinner mints and coffee). It was the best food that the guests had ever tasted.
It was a very posh do. Each course was brought to the table by waiters and waitresses who were impeccable in their attire, deferential in their manner and superb in their service. No sooner had a course finished than the waiters and waitresses swooped, removed the debris, cleaned and re-laid tables as necessary and brought the next course in a seamless stream of serene service.
It was a very posh do. At the end of the meal the host thanked the guests for coming. The guests all thanked the waiters and waitresses. They left significant tips for them. Some guests had made sure that they remembered the names of those who had served them and made sure that they thanked them personally. In the end one of the guests proposed three cheers for the waiters and waitresses and there was a thunderous series of cheers. The waiters and waitresses felt very good about all of this.
Foreign travel sounds exotic, exciting, and adventurous. If you have ever flown on a commercial airline you will know that once you arrive at the airport expectations of ‘exotic, exciting and adventurous’ are replaced with ‘queueing, waiting and boredom.’
First of all you arrive and find where you have to go to check in to confirm your place on the flight and send your bags into the mystical baggage handling system in the hope that they will travel with you and that you will be reunited at the end of the journey. You queue. Eventually you reach the front of the queue. You hand over your passport and ticket, confirm that you packed the bags yourself and that nobody has tampered with them, wave goodbye to your suitcase, remember to pick up your passport and boarding pass, and head off to the security gate.
You arrive at the security gate where they will examine your belongings with an x ray machine and check that you are not carrying anything you shouldn’t be. But first, you queue.
And after a long time queueing you reach the front of the line. You put your hand luggage in a plastic tray, take off your belt (hoping that your trousers will stay up) and put that in the tray, make sure you have no coins in your pockets, put your watch in the tray too, put your jacket in the tray, and wave goodbye to your belongings as they go off to be examined while you take a deep breath and step through the magic door that may or may not beep as you go through.
(At this point I want to make a personal detour. I have battery implanted in me and some wires that go into my head in order to stop chronic migraine. I have a special card that I carry for airport security (and other metal detecting places) that explains what is in me in the expectation that it will make the magic gate beep. It has never done so, which disappoints me. I want to be special and wave my card at the security person. But I am normal.)
If you do make the magic gate beep then the security person has to frisk you to make sure you haven’t got anything you shouldn’t have on your person. Then, finally, you proceed to the end of the conveyor where you wait for your hand baggage and other belongings to join you again.
When they arrive you grab the box, hope your trousers remain up, and join the ever-changing group of people who are reassembling their ensemble.
From the security gate you go into the wonderful world of duty free shopping. Big discounts are promised but, in my experience, the prices don’t seem much cheaper than in the high street. But if you want to buy anything you have forgotten to pack, or that was confiscated at the security gate, or simply because you want to carry more stuff around you join a queue. Because you can’t just buy it, you have to show your passport and boarding pass. And some people in front of you won’t have realised and can’t remember where they put them. So you wait.
Finally you have bought what you need and look for somewhere to sit while you wait for the electronic board to show which departure gate your flight will be leaving from, and to tell you when to go there. In the meantime you might feel peckish, go to buy some food, and join a queue to pay for it.
Then you wait. (This bit always seems a lot longer than it actually is).
The board suddenly changes and shows that they want you to go to the departure gate. Depending on the airport you then either have a long walk (occasionally using the travelators that enable you to walk at hyperspeed until you step off at the end and come to a juddering halt) or you get on a transit vehicle to take you there.
When you arrive at the departure gate, guess what, all the other passengers are there too and you have to find somewhere to sit until the plane is ready for boarding. So you wait. You wait for the moment when you hear the announcement that the flight is ready for boarding. And then everyone rushes to the desk and forms yet another queue.
So you wait, shuffling slowly forwards, until you reach the desk, hand over your passport and boarding pass one more time, and are told that you are worthy of flying on their aeroplane and admitted into the mysterious world beyond the desk. There may be a passenger boarding bridge (jetway) that enables you to walk from the desk around a series of unnecessary corners and straight to the aeroplane. Or you may have to go down a series of stairs or escalators and outside where a bus will take you to the plane, or you will walk across the tarmac to the plane.
When you get near the plane (whether on the boarding bridge or ready to ascend the stairs from the tarmac to the plane) you join the end of another queue. Slowly but surely you get closer to the plane and as you enter the door you show your boarding pass to the flight attendant who tells you that your seat is ‘down there’ (where else will it be?). You shuffle slowly along the aisle as people ahead try to cram unfeasibly large bags (how do they call that ‘hand luggage’?) into unfeasibly small overhead lockers and finally find your seat. You deal with your own hand luggage and collapse into your seat.
Then you stand up again quickly because you have sat on the safety belt buckle.
You move the belt and sit down again.
Then you wait.
You wait for all the passengers to board the plane. You look disappointedly at the person who arrives a few minutes after everyone else looking flustered at having run and almost missed the flight.
Then you wait.
Various announcements will be made over the intercom, most of which are ignored by most of the passengers.
The flight attendants will go through the humiliation of doing the safety demonstration while being ignored by most people.
Then you wait.
At last you sense the plane is moving as it is pushed away from the terminal and you get ready for take off.
Except that the plane has now joined a queue of planes awaiting permission to take off.
So you wait. The plane slowly shuffles forwards in the queue.
And just when you think the plane may as well drive to your destination it turns and pauses. You hear the engines start to increase in power and the plane leaps forwards. I love that moment. Judging by the white knuckles and vice-like grip on the armrest I perceive that others around me perhaps don’t share that joy.
Soon the rumble of wheels on tarmac is replaced by a funny lifting feeling and the sound of wheels being retracted as the aircraft climbs into the sky at a seemingly impossible angle. Then, slowly but surely, the angle of ascent gently lowers and the flight attendants burst into life.
Depending on the airline you are on food is either offered on a complimentary basis (ie included in the cost of the ticket) or you have to pay for it. But the flight attendants spend an inordinate amount of time travelling up and down with trollies dispensing food and hot and cold beverages, collecting the debris from the food and hot and cold beverages, offering duty free goods for sale (see above) and interrupting the flight in other ways.
I have a theory about this. My theory is that it is less to do with feeding the passengers (who could bring their own packed lunches, subject to restrictions on drinks) than it is about crowd control. If the trollies are going up and down the aisles we have to stay in our seats. If the flight attendants are constantly offering us things we feel like they are concerned for our wellbeing and are happier. If they keep interrupting us they are stopping us from becoming bored and restless. That may be a cynical approach, I have never tested the theory with anyone who knows about these things either.
If you are on a posh flight you may have some in flight entertainment system offering you a range of films, old TV shows and a map showing you where your aeroplane is relative to the departure and destination points. If you are on a budget flight the in flight entertainment is whatever you brought with you.
All of this action takes place in a relatively confined space for however long it takes to get to the destination. It is punctuated occasionally by turbulence and the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign being illuminated. (It’s fun to watch those in the queue (!) for the loo working out whether or not to remain in the queue or return to their seats. My observation is that most stay where they are.) Rumours that the ‘turbulence’ is the way the pilots deal with the monotony of the flight by jerking the flight controls up and down are not to believed at all.
Then comes the moment when you sense that the aircraft is starting to descend. The ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign is illuminated, the flight attendants check to ensure that everyone has obeyed, their seats are upright, armrests are down, tables are stowed, electronics (in flight mode) are off, headphones are taken out and luggage is not around people’s ankles. The aircraft may circle around for a while as the pilot awaits our slot in the queue (!) for landing and then the final descent begins.
If I can see out of a window I like to play a game on the landing descent. It starts with trying to see if I can identify any traffic moving. Then I like to be able to identify a human being on the ground. Soon after that we are usually on the ground (with or without ‘whump’ depending on the landing).
The aircraft engines are thrown into reverse, breaks are applied and the plane slows to taxiing speed. Where it joins a queue (!) to taxi to the stand where we will disembark. Even though the flight attendants (and captain) may tell everyone to remain seated with their seatbelts fastened until the plane has halted there’s always at least one person who thinks that they can get a head start on everyone else by getting up before the plane has stopped. Everyone else gives them a hard stare or tuts silently – hoping that a flight attendant will tell them off.
As soon as the plane stops it’s every person for theirself. We all grab our luggage and seek to push our way into the aisle, even though the doors are not open. We all wait impatiently to disembark, knowing full well that there will be more queues waiting for us as soon as we do. Queues to transfer into the terminal building. Queues for passport control. And then the interminable wait for the luggage.
We try to anticipate which carousel the luggage will appear on. We try to manoeuvre as close as possible to the place where the luggage is ejected from the conveyor belt onto the loop on which it will travel until claimed. And when it finally all starts up we look expectantly at the conveyor in the hope that our bags may be first off. They never are. I have another theory that they send down dummy bags to start with because I have never been the first and have never seen anyone else collect the first bags.
Joy of joys you see your bags and fight through the scrum to retrieve them – checking for footprints and other damage. Once they have all arrived (hopefully) you join the procession through the customs check and out into the airport arrivals area. You check all of the people holding up names in the vain hope that someone somewhere has decided to pick you up (even though you didn’t arrange anything). And then you emerge, blinking, into the daylight or even the night – breathing in the fresh air.
Then you go to whatever destination you have – you holiday or attend a business meeting – and then you repeat the whole process in reverse.
Some of you may be wondering why I have spent so long talking about the flight and only a sentence about what you do at the destination. The reason is that this is intended as a parable. About church. Or more specifically about church services.
Church services are not the destination of our Christian faith, they are the journey. They are to inspire, equip and encourage us for the rest of our lives. What we do, who we are, how we are, what we say when we are not in church is the destination. That’s where the rubber hits the tarmac and we live out our lives as followers of Jesus and witnesses to his love and good news. If we spend all our time focussing on church services we are like someone who travels abroad and focusses on the journey rather than the destination.
In 2007 I was in Ghana for a meeting of the Baptist World Alliance. I changed a small amount of currency into the Ghanaian currency, cedi. I was impressed by the ‘wodge’ of notes that I got, especially with all the 000’s. I felt wealthy. (And when I saw how some people lived I realised I really was, but that’s another story).
Then, while I was in Ghana, the currency was devalued. Essentially they knocked off lots of zeros from the value of each note. The old notes were suddenly worth a lot less and after six months would no longer be legal tender and would be worthless. It felt strange paying for things that were worth a couple of cedis with notes that had thousands of cedis on written them but were in fact worth only a few cedis!
Because the notes were worth so much less I brought a couple back home with me and gave them to my children as souvenirs. They ‘filed’ them in their bedrooms…
…Just recently a couple of these thousand cedi notes re-emerged and the children looked up their value on the internet. They did not know that they were no longer legal tender and were rather excited to think that they had banknotes worth thousands of pounds. The excitement diminished somewhat when I told them that they were worthless.
That’s a lesson that Jesus tried to teach us. In his parable about a wealthy farmer who kept building bigger barns to store his increasing crops. He planned to build a big enough nest egg on which to retire and then…
…let’s just say he experienced an unexpected devaluation in his currency.
Jesus described him as a fool for focusing on what wouldn’t last.