soapWords can be more slippery than soap in a bath. Just when you think you have got hold of them, whoops – there it goes again.

I have been reflecting this week on one of Jesus’ parables – it’s in Luke 16:19-31(you can read it here). It is the parable about the poor man, Lazarus, and a rich man who ignores him in this life and finds himself on the wrong side of the pearly gates in the next while Lazarus is in paradise.

There’s a lot that needs unpacking, explaining and understanding in that parable and you’ll have to come to church on Sunday morning to hear what I make of it (or listen online on our church website from next week). What I want to reflect on for a moment today is the nature of the word ‘story’.

Jesus told a story. It’s fictional. It’s almost cartoon-esque in the way that he tells it. It is based on a popular story of his day. People knew that it was not a true story. When Jesus told it with a twist he turned it into a parable – a story with a hidden meaning. It was still a story but it had more depth. When we use the word ‘story’ we often mean fiction.

But we also use the word ‘story’ to mean a narrative of something true. Sometimes we make that explicit by describing something as a ‘true story’. Yet to me somehow I can’t shake aspects of ‘fiction’ when I hear something described as a story, whether or not it is true and based on real events.

And I sometimes find myself talking about ‘the story of Jesus’, which is when I get worried about the coefficient of friction of the word ‘story’. When I use the word in that phrase does it somehow convey to people (especially those outside ‘church’) that it’s fictional? Does it unintentionally undermined the credibility of his life, death and resurrection – given how incredible it already is we don’t need to make it less credible!

I found myself pondering this over Christmas this year. The baby laid in a manger, with shepherds, wise men, angels, moving stars and virgin births is a wonderful, evocative tale but when we re-tell it year on year does it somehow become more fictional in the ears of the hearer because of the familiarity with it? Does it become more of a story and less of an historical account?

I try to use words and phrases like ‘narrative’ or ‘life-story’ or ‘account of his life’ to describe the gospels but still find myself occasionally telling his story. Of course it may just be my own personal gremlins messing around with the word in my head. But what’s the antidote?

I think it first of all starts with me. We have been working our way through Luke’s gospel over the past year in our morning services and I have been so blessed by reflecting regularly on the record of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. His teaching has such profundity and his stories are so engaging. The way he was with people (especially the fragile ones) is beautiful and yet terrifyingly scary (when he is challenging religious people). It’s not a descriptive biography with lots of details to build up a personal picture of Jesus but his personality still shines through. We can almost see his smile and hear him laugh (as he tells stories with silly endings); we hear him weep at how evil has damaged his world, and we watch empathically as he deals with tiredness and stress. And it’s those aspects of who he is (which are in the text of the gospels if you look hard enough) which I need to be looking out for as well as the big message of God’s love, grace and forgiveness. Because those are the things that confirm his story as being a true story. Those things resurrect him in my imagination as well as in a garden 33 years after he was born in Bethlehem.

If you ever feel that it’s not true, if ‘story’ is becoming more fictional as a descriptor of Jesus, re-read a gospel and look for the real man who was God. True story.

Be blessed, be a blessing

the stigmatised blonde and the 3 ursine mammals

teddy bear'sOnce upon a time there was little girl called Goldilocks. She had always felt slightly stigmatised by her name and the inferences people had made from it that she was a dumb blonde. One day she decided to go for a walk in the forest. Sadly she did little to suggest that the inference was incorrect because she travelled without a map or adequate food supplies. Unsurprisingly she got lost.

She must have stumbled through the forest all night long: scratching her legs on the brambles, tripping over tree roots and running from the hidden producers of screeches and howls in the night.

Meanwhile in the extremely unlikely cottage inhabited by the 3 Bears they had slept well during the night. Instead of wild honey and berries mother bear was somehow managing to cook porridge and called for father bear and baby bear to join her. Amazingly they had mastered the use of opposable thumbs which they didn’t possess so that they could pick up spoons and eat their porridge from the bowls which presumably they had stolen from scared picnickers as they would not have been able to buy them in the shops both because of the terrifying sight of theirs coming into shops and because they had no source of income.

It seems that father bear and baby were somewhat fussy eaters and decided that the porridge was too hot. Rather than simply adding cold milk (and there are questions about the source of the milk as well) they decided that it was better to go for a walk in the forest to wait for the food to cool down.

Shortly after they had gone out, foolishly neglecting to lock the door (although once again that would have been difficult task without opposable thumbs), Goldilocks arrived at the cottage and, desperate for shelter and food, entered without permission. She then carried out acts of vandalism and theft: breaking a small chair and eating porridge that did not belong to her. This brazen blonde then explored the premises, perhaps looking for valuables, and as she explored the bedrooms tried out the different beds.

At this stage we discover that father bear needed an orthopaedic bed, mother bear probably needed a bed that had more support and that baby bear was the only one with what could be described as a supportive mattress. We must suspend disbelief again at this point, recognising that bears do not generally sleep on beds. And as we suspend disbelief the 3 Bears re-enter their property.

They see the results of the vandalism caused by the teenage tearaway asleep upstairs and are indignant that whoever caused the damage did not leave any trace of their identity. They are similarly upset about having their food violated and consumed and decided to explore their house to see what else has been damaged or if anything has been taken. The flaxen haired heroine of our tale had not bothered to remake the beds after testing them and this vexed the parent bears.

The bear offspring was also vexed to find that somebody had also tested his/her bed (we’re not told of the gender of the bearcub) and indignant to discover a strange woman in the bed: presumably worried about what the parent bears might say about an unauthorised sleepover.

It is at this point that Goldilocks woke up and the witness accounts vary about what happened next. Some say that she explained the situation to the Bears who were very forgiving, fed her properly, and helped her to find her way home so she could live happily ever after. Some say that she screamed and ran out of the house leading behind 3 bemused bears. Some say that the Bears reverted to type and ate her instead of the porridge.

What can we learn from this parable?

  1. Name your children carefully as they may conform to stereotypes.
  2. Exploring the countryside whilst unprepared is foolish.
  3. Animals adapt quickly.
  4. Leaving your door unlocked may lead to vandalism and burglary.
  5. It is not necessarily wise to remain at the scene of a crime if you want to get away with it.
  6. Sometimes familiarity with a story stops us asking questions about it.

So what questions should you be asking about the Bible text next time you’re reading? You’ll find a lot more is in there if you are willing to consider the depths and not simply receive it at face value.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

are you sitting comfortably?

Stories are brilliant.

As a toddler I used to love the afternoons when my Mum would turn on the radio and we would enjoy ‘Listen with Mother’. A plummy BBC-voiced lady would read a short story for children, but would always begin with: “Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I’ll begin.”

One of the things I miss is that my children are now too old for me to read them bedtime stories. I used to enjoy those moments when they’d snuggle down, having chosen the story for the night, and I’d read them the story. It was a wonderful time.

I can still remember some of the stories with great affection, especially Isabel’s Noisy Tummy which was about a girl (Isabel) whose tummy would not stop making funny noises, despite the best advice of family, friends and doctors. There’s a wonderful ending to the book, which I won’t spoil for those of you who will now rush out and get it, but suffice to say that the children learnt the last line and would join in with gusto.

Later on, when I was feeling inspired, I started making up stories of my own. They were about a little boy called Dave: ‘sometimes he was good, sometimes he was naughty.’ He got into all sorts of mischief but his parents never stopped loving him and helping him to learn from his mistakes. Thomas loved the Dave stories and would sometimes request a new one based on a scenario he had come up with. When Hannah got older she demanded Dave stories, but surprisingly he also had a little sister, Daisy, who could be as much trouble as Dave.

These stories are now just family folklore. They no longer get told. That reminds me of the stories my Great Grandad used to tell us about a family of ducks – the main protagonist being called ‘Willy Waddle’. I know my Mum persuaded him to write some of them down and they exist somewhere among her treasured possessions.

I am looking at my open Bible at the moment and wondering in amazement how this book has come to me. It was not simply some stories that were made up and passed down from generation to generation until someone was persuaded to write them down. This is not mere history though – it is His story: a record of human encounters with the Divine.

Like many people I have favourite passages. I love Isaiah 6, because God spoke to me through it about my own call to be a Minister. I love Paul’s letters to Timothy, the young Minister of Ephesus Baptist Church* because they resonate with my early years as a Minister, and they contain these words from 2 Timothy 4 that were ‘given’ to me when I was baptised at the age of 13, before I had considered a call to Ministry:

But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

But my favourite of all are the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In them we find out about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a master story-teller (no record of him telling any about Dave), a man of compassion and grace, a confronter of prejudice and hypocrisy, a reconnector of people and God.

But he also claimed to be God. The gospel narratives blend together to provide the most wonderful picture of God among us. Joan Osborne sang a song a few years ago that asked the incarnation question:

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with him
In all his glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?

Chorus: And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home

If God had a face what would it look like?
And would you want to see
If seeing meant that
you would have to believe
in things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints
and all the prophets (chorus)

Trying to make his way home
Back up to heaven all alone
Nobody calling on the phone
‘cept for the Pope maybe in Rome(chorus)

Just trying to make his way home
Like a holy rolling stone
Back up to heaven all alone
Just trying to make his way home
Nobody calling on the phone
‘cept for the Pope maybe in Rome

How do you answer the questions in the song? Is Joan Osborne being cynical, questioning, genuine, critical?

How do you respond to the narratives of the gospels that speak of God as one of us? Have you ever read one – start to finish – as you would read any other book?

I have added ‘Luke’ to my reading list for my sabbatical and am going to spend a day this week just reading the narrative again: start to finish.

Be blessed, be a blessing

[No joke today, but go and buy Isabel’s Noisy Tummy (second hand copies on Amazon) and enjoy it instead. The ending will make you laugh.]

*Okay, probably not a Baptist Church by name at that time, but on a trip to a village near Ephesus a couple of years ago our guide showed us the ruins of an ancient Roman church with an open baptismal pool, which my imagination leapt to thinking it was Ephesus Baptist Church, where Rev Tim pastored.