instructed

One of my sermon PowerPoints with a PIP lego version of me
One of my sermon PowerPoints with a PIP lego version of me

During  recent renovations at our church we installed a video camera system so that wherever you sit in the church you will be able to see what is going on. As part of it we have a picture in picture facility so that, for example, we can show a PowerPoint with the words of a reading and also have on the screen a small screen showing the video of the person reading.

On Sunday morning there were some problems and the PIP (as it is known by technical peeps) would not show the video image over the PowerPoint backgrounds. No amount of pressing the buttons in the right order would work.

This morning, while I was at the church, I decided to call the company that installed the system and ask them to tell me what had gone wrong. In order to do this in the most helpful way I decided it would be a good idea to switch the system on so I could describe the problem accurately and be talked through any solution.

You can guess what happened when I switched the system on this morning.

That’s right.

The problem was still there. (Be honest, did you think I was going to say that it had resolved itself?)

I was just getting ready to call the company when my brain reached into the dark recesses of my memory and reminded me that there were some written instructions for the system and that they said something about what would happen if you did things in the wrong order.

I found the instructions and as I read them I realised that what had happened was that someone had switched it off in the wrong order and that what needed to happen was for that wrong order to be reversed in order to get back to the way the system should work. I did that, and it worked. Problem solved, no loss of face with the company that installed the system, and a sense of achievement.

Except that if we had thought about it on Sunday and consulted the instructions then we could have sorted the problem out quickly and easily. My achievement was not spectacular at all, it was more a saving of face.

How often do we ignore what is glaringly obvious and try alternative solutions?

When the Bible talks about forgiveness, grace and mercy instead we focus on revenge, bitterness and anger. While the Bible speaks of generosity and the blessing of giving, we concentrate on increasing our bank balance and hoarding. When the Bible speaks of freedom from sin we prefer to wallow in guilt.

For best results, follow the maker’s instructions. This is not only good advice for appliances, it should also be stamped clearly on each one of us.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Here be dragons

It may help you to read yesterday’s bloggage at this point and then come back, in order to set a context.

Done that?

Good.

old mapOn ancient maps, so we are told, where the map maker had run out of knowledge at the edge of the map they would write ‘Here be Dragons’ or similar warnings to keep sailors from sailing into unknown perils.

I have a sense that it would be easier to put a similar warning for churches about our future. Because of changes in legislation in the UK we face some difficult decisions and discussions on the question of same sex marriage.

Some people would rather we did not discuss this, reckoning that we are sailing in dangerous and uncharted waters or preferring not to have to talk about such things in church.

Others (on both ‘sides’) have already made up their mind about the issue and are just waiting for the moment to express their view in a meeting. They welcome the opportunity to persuade others to their point of view but I fear may not be so ready to be persuaded themselves.

Some people are still trying to work out what they think, trying to make sense of what the Bible says and are confused. If they had to make a decision now they would struggle.

Some are worried that this issue could divide the church.

And (we must always remember this) some come to this with personal experience – it’s not a theoretical discussion but affects friends and family.

As a church we are hosting a day with Revd Paul Goodliff, Head of Ministry at the Baptist Union of Great Britain (28th September) where we will explore the social context, what the Bible is saying to us and consider a Christlike response. I have been part of a day like this before and it is incredibly helpful. If you can be there, do.

Following that, in the nearish future, we have some difficult decisions to make and discussions to have. Because of the change in the law it is possible that our church could be approached to see if we would conduct a same sex wedding. What do we say?

As things stand I am sure, from conversations that I have had with people in our church, that if we as a church made a policy decision not to conduct same sex weddings there would be some people who would leave our church as a matter of conscience and principle. I am also sure, from conversations that I have had with people in our church, that if we as a church made a policy decision to conduct same sex weddings there would be some people who would leave our church as a matter of conscience and principle.

At this point I am tempted to stop and simply write ‘Here be dragons’ over the whole issue and not go there. Perhaps it would be easier if we did not conduct any weddings at all (which I think is the equivalent of ‘Here be dragons’). But that is not a helpful response and is not a Christlike response.

Instead I am praying earnestly for God’s grace, guidance and wisdom in this. Because the division and departures are only inevitable if churches are human institutions. If we truly are people and places that are full of the Spirit of Jesus, people of love and grace, then there must be a way ahead that does not lead to argument, hurt and division.

Please join me in praying for that for our churches and for ourselves.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

wise words?

“Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.” (Forrest Gump*).

Except that if you have the leaflet that comes with the box of chocolates you have a good idea about what you are gonna get. Perhaps this is more accurate:

“Life is like a box of chocolates: we all come to a sticky end.” (Nick Lear)

The internet seems full of pithy sayings and clever pieces of advice. This morning I have received this African proverb from two different sources:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

bible genesis

I also came across some words from J John about reading the Bible, which seemed quite appropriate to what I am saying tomorrow night at the Expedition Through the Bible. He suggests that reading the Bible without God’s Spirit is like eating a dry biscuit while walking in the desert (or something like that, I can’t find it again now).

That’s clever and amusing but I wonder if it’s not more like driving a car with an empty fuel tank: you’re not going to get very far. God’s Spirit is the one who inspired people to write down the words we have in the Bible, so he’s the best one to be able to inspire us as we read them. Without him the words, as brilliant and amazing as they are, will not take us anywhere. Without him the Bible is simply (!) an astonishing collection of ancient literature that gives good advice for life along the lines of Forrest Gump.

With him, God speaks through the words, and applies them to us, so that he inspires, encourages, comforts, challenges, teaches, blesses, corrects, guides, nurtures…

Don’t stop reading the Bible, but make sure you put some fuel in the tank before you do!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Yes, I know he is quoting his ‘Mumma’ but he is the one who articulates it in the film

M’lud

gavel

In my former incarnation (I used to be a litigation lawyer) I remember how intimidating it felt when I went and stood before a judge on behalf of a client. I was a very junior (and inexperienced) lawyer when I had to go and stand before a High Court judge in his chambers to agree a timescale for a case. I was so junior that I had to ask for his permission to be admitted and represent my client.

My mouth went dry, my knees knocked and a rabble* of butterflies performed complex acrobatics inside me. I somehow managed to speak and make representations, and we reached an agreement. I left the room feeling simultaneously drained and elated.

On another occasion I had to go before a High Court Judge in Bristol, again in chambers, on a complex and rare procedure. I was coming to the end of my time as a lawyer, about to go to the Vicar Factory, but I was still anxious because it was such a difficult procedure and because of who I would be standing before. When the case was called I was relieved to find that the defendant was not there and neither were any legal representatives on his behalf.

The judge asked me some questions about the procedure, which I had followed to the letter and could demonstrate with documentation, and agreed to grant me the order. He then asked me to let him have it so he could sign it. I didn’t have anything with me! I had not expected to win so easily and had not thought to bring a document in case. I remember going very red in the face and apologising for forgetting. He realised my discomfort and graciously agreed to sign it when I sent it.

I left the room feeling simultaneously drained and elated.

You may be expecting me to head off at this stage with bloggerel about standing before God and how awesome he is. If that is where you are heading then go with that and reflect on that thought in your own life. But I want to go in a different direction.

I would not want to be a judge. By virtue of their wisdom, experience, training and reputation these people are set apart to make decisions for the rest of us when we are unable to decide for ourselves. That sort of responsibility is profoundly impressive when it is carried out in the ways that I have experienced. It is no wonder that we are intimidated because these people are set above us and have the power to shape our lives.

Jesus warns us not to judge other people, as we ourselves will be judged. When we judge someone else we are setting ourselves up as superior to them. We have a set of standards by which we judge. We decide whether or not someone has matched up to our expectations and our standards. But who decided that we are superior? Who decided that our standards and expectations are right? When we judge someone else we are assuming that responsibility. If we condemn someone else on the basis of our judging then we are assuming the moral high ground.

There’s an old saying that goes, “When you point the finger at someone there are three other fingers pointing back at you.” I think that is what Jesus was saying in the warning I mentioned above. If you judge others you can expect to be judged by the same standards. If you condemn someone else, be careful because that condemnation may well come back at you. None of us is perfect. I am certainly not perfect. If you decide that someone else is not good enough you need to recognise that you aren’t either. You may not share the same faults that you have identified in someone else, but you have others. If you aren’t sure about this, think about what Jesus had to say about taking a speck of dust out of someone else’s eye while you have a plank in yours! (Matthew 7:1-5)

If, and I would like that word in bold, flashing letters, it is ever right to point out to someone else where they may have fallen short we should only ever do so with grace, humility, prayer and gentleness. We should only do so if we are sure that this is what God wants us to do, and we should only do so in a Christlike way. It should never be our intention to condemn, always our intention to encourage and build up. We should never leave someone quivering and full of guilt, we should always leave them feeling that God has blessed them through us and reassuring them of his grace and forgiveness.

Please God, forgive me if I ever presume to judge someone else, especially when I know that I am nowhere near perfect. Thank you for the forgiveness and fresh starts that you graciously offer.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

After a lawyer had spent six hours summing up his case the judge was unimpressed.

“Mr Feldspar,” he intoned, “After six hours of your presentation I am still none the wiser.”

“Possibly not, M’lud,” responded the lawyer, “but you are far better informed.”

 

*Apparently this is the collective noun for butterflies. It seems a bit unruly for such graceful creatures!

fence sitting is uncomfortable

I’ve been working on Sunday evening’s sermon, which will be on the second-half of Acts chapter 5. This is the occasion when the apostles were hauled in front of the religious authorities and so infuriated them with their teaching about Jesus that a majority of people there want to put them to death. However a Pharisee named Gamaliel intervened with these words: “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

I have heard people speak in reverential and hushed tones about Gamaliel’s wisdom here. The prevented bloodshed by stating that there was a clear choice: either this Christianity lark was from God or it wasn’t. If it isn’t then it will fall apart in due course. If it is then you run the risk of offending the Almighty.

To an extent I think he did demonstrate wisdom because he had a sufficiently open mind to recognise that what was happening might be from God. But he also missed the glaringly obvious – if there is a clear choice then surely you have to come down on one side or the other, there is no room for fence sitting. Gamaliel wanted to have his cake and eat it (insert further clichés here, as appropriate).wood fence in nature 1

“Wait and see” is not a particularly adventurous or godly response when we are faced with a choice like the one before Gamaliel and Co. It is risk averse and lacks faith or discernment. Certainly we do not want to get it wrong and be on the anti-God side, but I have a sense that is God would much rather we made a stab at discerning his will and got it wrong than that we sit on the fence. When Jesus told the parable of the talents the servant who did nothing was the one who was castigated and it was his inactivity that was condemned.

This is not saying that we should not seek to discern God’s will. Exactly the opposite is true. But we should not be paralysed by fear of getting it wrong – he is a God of grace after all and will forgive us if we ask: 2nd chances are his stock in trade.

Sitting on the fence is uncomfortable at best and only really makes sense in jokes about what time it is when an elephant sits on your fence.*

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Time to get a new one

the late wise men

starWe have now entered the period of the year which in church calendars is known as ‘Epiphany’. It is the period of time when we are supposed to reflect on the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus. In reality I think it is time of year when most people reflect on how much we have eaten over Christmas, how much we have spent on presents, and how come the decorations multiply in number between when we put them up and when we put them away for another year. On the whole I think it would be fair to say that in nonconformist churches like ours the Feast of Epiphany doesn’t really get a look in.

Which is a shame. Not necessarily because of the feast, but because of what it represents. In our traditional nativity plays the wise men turn up at the stable shortly after the shepherds have put in an appearance. But Matthew gives us hints in his gospel but this was later: perhaps up to 2 years after Jesus had been born. These hints include the fact that the star they saw rose to signify his birth (not Mary’s pregnancy), the length of time of preparation for and travelling on the journey from ‘the East’, that they visited Jesus in a house rather than a stable and Herod’s parameters for his infanticide, which were to kill all baby boys under the age of 2.

Timing aside, I think it is important that we recognise the significance of the wise men arriving to worship Jesus. This is a sign even in the birth narratives of Jesus that what he had come to do was for the whole world, not simply the Jewish people among whom he would live and predominantly share most of his teaching. These wise men were foreigners, not Jewish, and (scandal of scandals) were astrologers – all of which would have disqualified them in the eyes of the religious leaders of the day from being included in God’s story. It’s not insignificant that is Matthew who tells us about the wise men, since he was writing to a predominantly Jewish audience about Jesus. He was making the point right at the beginning of the Jesus narrative that the Kingdom of Heaven was much more inclusive than anyone had previously imagined.

And actually all those of us who have not been born with Jewish heritage should identify most with the wise men in the Christmas narrative. Not because of our wisdom or even because we read horoscopes (I still can’t understand why anyone does that!) Rather it is because they are our spiritual forefathers. They worshipped Jesus despite their lack of Jewish heritage. And of course in 3 gifts they gave we have a succinct summary of Jesus’ identity: gold, for the King of kings; frankincense, for his priestly role of making God accessible to us; myrhh, for his sacrificial death.

In our school nativity plays I always ended up as a narrator because I was good at reading (at least that’s what I tell myself, not that I was poor at acting). I always wanted to be Joseph because he had a key role, he was on stage for the whole time, he was the centre of the action. But now I rather fancy the idea of being one of the wise men. Perhaps I’ll see how wise a man I can be today…

Be blessed, be a blessing.

A woman takes her 16-year-old daughter to the doctor. The doctor says, “Okay, Mrs. Jones, what’s the problem?”

The mother says, “It’s my daughter, Debbie. She keeps getting these cravings, she’s putting on weight, and is sick most mornings.”

The doctor gives Debbie a good examination, then turns to the mother and says, “Well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but your Debbie is pregnant – about 4 months, would be my guess.”

The mother says, “Pregnant?! She can’t be, she has never ever been left alone with a man! Have you, Debbie?”

Debbie says, “No mother! I’ve never even kissed a man!”

The doctor walked over to the window and just stares out it. About five minutes pass and finally the mother says, “Is there something wrong out there doctor?”

The doctor replies, “No, not really, it’s just that the last time anything like this happened, a star appeared in the east and three wise men came over the hill. I don’t want to miss it this time!”

in the end are the words

I was glad I was not there. I would have disgraced myself with sniggers, snorts and perhaps even full-blown laughter.

It was an important meeting making important decisions. The meeting seemed to be moving towards agreement when a lady who might be described as ‘traditionally built’ (see No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) stood up.

“I have a ‘but’,” she announced, “and it’s a very big ‘but’!”

A friend of mine who was there at the meeting told me that there were many people who were trying hard not to show any reaction as they mentally added a ‘t’ to ‘but’ while others stuffed fists in their mouths or had thinly disguised coughing fits.

 

I was angry that I was there. I almost disgraced myself with an outburst, but my wise and loving wife restrained me with a gentle hand on my arm and prevented me from making a scene.

At the time I was working as a lawyer. I had many different clients and had recently had to obtain an injunction to keep a man away from his wife after he had beaten her to a pulp.

The (allegedly) qualified Christian speaker stood up at the seminar on marriage at the Christian Conference that is held in the Spring and announced, “It is always right for a husband and wife to remain together.”

In my mind I could see my client’s battered face and wanted to introduce her to this speaker and see if she still believed that statement.

 

Typewriter 3
26 letters can rearrange themselves into all sorts of amazing combinations

The words we use are incredible. They have the potential to amuse (intentionally or otherwise), to convey wisdom, to encourage, to correct, to support and so much more. And they have the power to be destructive, to tear down, to imprison, to denigrate, to humiliate.

Most of the time we lob out words without giving them much thought. We scatter them liberally as we travel throughout the day. We leave them behind us like the wake behind a speedboat and don’t consider the impact on those who are bobbing around behind us. Some may enjoy the ride, others may be swamped.

In James 3 we read of how potentially dangerous the tongue is and James suggests that it needs taming and restraining, it as if it were a wild horse. He continues:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Jesus spoke of how the mouth reveals what our heart is like.

I don’t think they were just writing and talking about swearing: if we say things thoughtlessly, what might that say about what we are like?

In writing this bloggerel I am acutely aware that once I click on ‘publish’ these words are out there for anyone to find, read and react to. I hope and pray that they are a blessing and an encouragement to you. If they are the opposite, please let me know so I can respond and amend what needs amending.

How will people respond to your words today?

Be blessed, be a blessing.