crouching God, hidden pain

This is a slightly edited version of my ‘thought for the week’ yesterday – sent to the Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association…

11/9/2018 is a landmark day (or 9/11/2018 if you are American). (Cue trumpet fanfare, ticker-tape parade and 21 gun salute… or maybe not). That day was the last day of my cardiac rehabilitation process. While I am still not 100% back to where I was before the surgery and still have one or two further appointments, I reckon I am about 95% and today is a significant milestone along the way that demonstrates the progress that has been made since my surgery back in February. I am now back at work full time.

Immense thanks go to my amazing wife, Sally, who has been a wonderful support and encourager throughout the time. Immense thanks go to the surgical, medical and rehab teams at the Essex Cardio-Thoracic Centre in Basildon who have looked after me incredibly. And immense thanks go to you and your churches for the many prayers that have been offered on my behalf – I have been acutely conscious of them and am sure that part of my progress is attributable to them. But most of all immense thanks go to my Lord who has been with me from start to finish along the difficult journey, and of course continues to do so. And I have discovered a new way in which he is with us.

SilhouetteYou may recall that in my recent Thoughts for the Week (not published here) I have been reflecting on Psalm 40. In verse 1 David wrote: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” In my first reflection on this psalm I noted how it must have felt to David to have God give him his attention. But since then I have done some more research on the Psalm and have discovered that our English translation is somewhat inadequate, albeit literally correct. The sense in the original Hebrew language is not of God turning to face David as he was in the slimy pit so much as ‘he crouched down to me and listened to me crying’. The image is of a loving parent who sees their child in tears and gets down on the floor to be with them in their sorrow so that they know that they are not alone. There’s no suggestion of wiping away tears or words of comfort, or attempting to explain what’s going on, just a God who crouches down with us and listens to our crying. That’s an astonishing thing for David to write about God when the gods of other nations were warlike and needing to be invoked or remote and needing to be appeased. I love it, and I have experienced it.

9/11 is the anniversary of the day when terrorists hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and another crashed as the passengers sought to prevent greater tragedy. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

There are many in today’s world who are victims of natural disasters, human violence and tragic circumstances. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

I am conscious that some of you and some of your church are going through deep, dark valleys at the moment. Our God is the one who crouches down with us and listens to the crying.

May we all experience and bring his reassuring presence in our life and ministry.

the blog I almost wrote

I was about to blog about an issue I have with using up a particular resource when performing one of my favourite magic tricks when I realised that if I did I might well be revealing a bit more about that illusion than I would want to. That could have several unwanted results:

  1. For people who have seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the illusion would be weakened.
  2. For people who haven’t seen me perform that effect and then read this bloggage the bloggage would not make much sense.
  3. I could get thrown out of the Magic Circle for revealing too much about the method.

People who perform magical illusions try not to reveal the secrets. This is not because we are maintaining some form of cartel to keep ‘muggles’ ignorant nor because we want to maintain a delusion* of superiority. It’s not even primarily because it would put magicians out of work. It’s first and foremost because the effect and impact of the illusion would be diminished or even destroyed by showing how it is done. Yes the performer may gain some degree of credit or kudos for showing people how clever / dexterous / ingenious they have been but for the audience what was hopefully a moment of amazement, delight and perhaps even awe has been reduced to ‘oh’. The magic has been replaced with an explanation. It’s like deconstructing a joke. The funny is taken out of the joke in the explanation of why it is funny.

I wonder sometimes whether the wonder has been taken out of church in a similar way. We ask questions about God (rightly so) and we try to deepen our understanding of God (a good thing) and in the nonconformist wing of the church in which I find myself most comfortable we have almost made a virtue of simplicity (and ugly buildings) in an effort to show that you don’t need anything special to encounter God (and I don’t disagree with that intention).

20140217_130518But are we also in danger of losing the awe, the wonder, the mystery of God? I was talking with someone recently about Canterbury Cathedral (above) and one of the things it does for you when you enter the vast space and see the height of the vaulted ceiling is that it takes your breath away. I think that was the intention of the designers. Not so that people would go, “Wow, what a building!” but “Wow, how amazing God must be to inspire people to create a place like this in order to worship him!”

But it’s not just buildings that can do this.

Ideally we followers of Jesus should have such God-refined character that when people look at us they say, “Wow, how amazing God must be when you look at his followers!” And Jesus had something to say about that (my paraphrase): “If you love one another in the same way that God loves people then when people look at you it will be blindingly obvious that you are my followers.”

Is it?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*yes, I meant to write that

possibly the most difficult service of the year

virgin and childIn the UK this Sunday is marked as Mothering Sunday. And, when you are a local church Minister, it is one of those Sundays that takes a disproportionate amount of thought and preparation. It is a day when, when I have got it ‘wrong’, I have had more complaints than any other in the calendar year! Allow me to let you in on some of the things that have to be considered and how I have not got it right on occasions…

Gifts – do we give a gift on Mothering Sunday? If we do it should probably go to all women so that nobody feels excluded. Will a small posy of flowers be a blessing, or is it just a token? Will some women feel patronised by being included? Can we afford that number of posies of flowers? Who will organise getting the flowers and sorting them? Who will give them out? When in the service will they be given out? Are there any alternatives to flowers?

Inclusivity – not all women are mothers. Some would desperately love to be a mother and others would rather not. Some mothers no longer have their children with them – they might have moved away, they may have lost contact, some may have died prematurely. Some people did not get on well with their own mothers and would rather not be reminded of them. Some people are mothers and find it a joy, others find it a struggle. How can we prepare a service in which we take account of and include all of those different emotional needs and circumstances?

History – Mothering Sunday was not originally about mothers. It emerged in the era when the wealthy had lots of domestic servants in their homes who worked all hours and (if allowed out on a Sunday) attended the same church as their master/mistress. This was one Sunday in the year in which they were released from the obligation to attend that church and could go back to their Mother church and also visit their home. That’s a tradition that is no longer observed due to changed cultural and social structures. Mothering Sunday has now become about Mums. But if we focus on the historical roots of the day it could become a ‘Back to Church Sunday’, yet my experience in local church is that this would not be something that many would appreciate.

Language – It used to be ‘Mothering Sunday’, now it is ‘Mothers’ Day’. That change of language reflects the change of purpose of the day. But if it was a day to think about mothering it would be different from thinking about mothers. We could sensitively reflect on mothering as a positive concept and perhaps avoid upsetting some people by reminding them of past hurt or current pain.

Bible – linked to ‘language’, the Bible constantly talks about God as Father. Far less frequently is God referred to as ‘mother’ or even in the feminine, although there are a few passages – you can find a good summary of them here. I was in the congregation of a service on one occasion when the person leading opened with a prayer that began: “Mother God…” Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe that we have paid insufficient attention to the femaleness of God, and that we have ‘maleified’ Genesis 1:27 when the Bible talks about male and female being made in God’s image: if both genders are made in God’s image, what does that say about God? And I don’t actually think that to talk to God as our Mother is disrespectful, blasphemous or wrong. But to begin with those words upset almost everyone in the church (male and female) because it came without explanation or warning. I don’t think many people remembered anything about the service after those two words. There is still a lot of patriarchy in our theology and practice in church and Mothering Sunday has the potential to run aground on the rocks of that prejudice.

Tradition – I have found to my cost that if you try to change the way that Mothering Sunday has been done before you will get criticism. There is something important for people (which I have underestimated) about tradition (and that’s coming from a non-conformist branch of the church). One year I took the decision not to give out flowers but said that we would use the money instead to give to a charity working with bereaved mothers. I had not asked many people about this, I had not sought approval from the leadership team for this, I acted out of good motives but rashly and unilaterally. I naively thought that this would receive universal assent and affirmation as a new way of doing things. Nope. Cue lots of unhappy people (men and women) because I had changed from the traditional way we had done things. I’m not having a go at those people – their upset was genuine and I had not taken their feelings and thoughts into account. I’m just illustrating how deeply tradition is felt and how not to go about changing it.

Commercialisation – I do struggle with the way in which Mothers’ Day (Mothering Sunday) has been hijacked commercially. Cards have to be sent, gifts have to be bought, meals with the family in restaurants are booked (when usually people spend the time differently). Again, don’t misunderstand me. I am not against showing people that you love them by sending cards and gifts. It’s just that it sits uneasily with me, especially when there are people (identified above) for whom this is a difficult time and everywhere they go there will be reminders.

All of this may lead you to think that I am against Mothering Sunday. No. Not at all. It’s just that it’s so difficult to prepare for when you have to take all of the above into account, and that’s alongside the intention to prepare a service in which people can worship and encounter God, and a sermon through which God can speak. The beauty is that when I have got it right, it has been a very special time. For me it starts with preparing a service in which people can worship and encounter God and a sermon through which God can speak. But then it’s entirely right to take into consideration the issues I have mentioned above.

I think it is important that we encourage people to be who they are in church, not putting on a pretend, happy face when inside we are weeping. It is important that we bring all of our lives and experiences with us into church and seek God’s Spirit to minister to them, not leaving the difficult items at the door to be collected (unchanged) on the way out. Prayers can be inclusive, allowing time and space for the pain and hurt to be expressed to God alongside the thankfulness. If I was doing it again I would probably still want to make a gift to a charity working to support bereaved parents, but it would be alongside not instead of existing traditions if they were helpful to people.

Exploring the nature of God (including in the feminine) is something worth doing, and worth doing well. One of the moments that I think worked well was when we got some people up to have a ‘dandling’ competition using some of the dolls from the crèche, coming from this image in Isaiah 66:12-13:

‘I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
you will feed and be carried on her arm
    and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
    so will I comfort you;
    and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.’

(If you don’t know, dandling is playfully bouncing a child up and down on your knee.) The congregation voted for the best dandling and then we explored what it meant that God’s people (Israel in the Old Testament) are described as dandling – playful, secure, comforting, loving… and how that might be true of us.

I hope that, whatever Mothering Sunday means to you, it will also bring with it a greater awareness of God’s love, compassion, protection, joy, pride, enthusiasm and, yes, dandling into your life.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

clichéd

Aren’t clichés wonderful?

I would like to engage in some blue sky thinking by thinking outside of the box. Perhaps I will fly a kite, or pop some thoughts in my mental microwave and see what goes ‘ping’. It may be safer to let sleeping dogs lie in case I let the cat out of the bag, but I am firing on all cylinders so I am going to jump in with both feet.

Mental microwaves aside (that comes from the classic British comedy ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’) these statements have entered our language and have acquired a meaning all of their own.

The origins of the word ‘cliché’ are unsurprisingly French. According to the fount of all knowledge, aka Wikipedia, the word is borrowed from French. In printing, a cliché was a printing plate cast from movable type. This is also called a stereotype. When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly as a single slug of metal. “Cliché” came to mean such a ready-made phrase.metal type from letterpress 3

While it may have made sense for printers to create these clichés I worry that Christians have done the same. We have decided that God is like this or that and have defined him, confined him, and perhaps even refined him (in the sense that we have tamed him). We have our preset ideas of what God is like, what he would do, what he wouldn’t do. We decide the limits of God’s activity and the boundaries of his love and grace.

The film ‘Dogma’ (which I love, but you do need an internal ‘bleep’ for all the swearing) is based on the premise that because the Catholic Church has declared something and claims to speak for God, he is bound by their dogma. The end of the film (no spoilers) explodes the preconceptions about God wonderfully.

On Sunday morning I was sitting in a church service where the preacher was talking about worship. I realised that I was guilty of having too small a vision of God. Indeed any ‘vision’ of God is too small. Our finite capacity is always going to be inadequate to describe him. That sends a shiver down my spine. Even if I spent my whole life describing and defining God I would still have too small an understanding and description of God.

This is one reason why the incarnation is so amazing. In Jesus the mystery and majesty of God is somehow merged with humanity so that we can see something of what God is like in ways that we can understand. But please let’s not try to confine, define or refine Jesus either. Rather than the quaint Victorian portaits of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus with birds perching on his shoulders and children at his feet I find it easier to think in terms of his characteristics.

Gracious

Loving

Forgiving

Kind

Winsome

Funny

Perceptive

Engaging

Relevant

Generous

Accessible

and so on…

The limits of human vocabulary mean that this list would ultimately be finite, but it would be amazing. Behind each word in my mind are accounts of what he said and did that are recorded in the Gospels. But they are not the whole story (check out the last words of John 20 if you are not sure about that). They help us catch a glimpse of what he is like and in turn through him we have a tiny representation of God the Father.

Time for another shiver down the spine I think.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

A sign was hung in an office window. It read:

Help wanted.
Must type 70 words a minute.
Must be computer literate.
Must be bilingual.
An equal opportunity employer.

A dog was ambling down the street and saw the sign. He looked at it for a moment, pulled it down with his mouth, and walked into the manager’s office, making it clear he wished to apply for the job.

The office manager laughed and said, “I can’t hire a dog for this job.”

The dog pointed to the line: “An equal opportunity employer.”

So the manager said, “OK, take this letter and type it.”

The dog went off to the word processor and returned a minute later with the finished letter, perfectly formatted.

The manager said, “Alright, here’s a problem. Write a computer program for it and run it.”

Fifteen minutes later, the dog came back with the correct answer.

The manager still wasn’t convinced. “I still can’t hire you for this position. You’ve got to be bilingual.”

The dog looked up at the manager and said, “Meow.”