why God is more generous than a crisp* manufacturer.

I like receiving parcels in the post. Usually it will be items that I have ordered online, but occasionally there’s a surprise and that’s the best…

A while ago I had lunch in a well-known coffee-retailing emporium. I chose to have a sandwich and crisps (*’chips’ for my North American bloggists) along with my cup of coffee. I started eating the crisps and thought that the taste was a bit strong, but I persisted because they were not a brand I often buy and I thought that they may have changed the flavour since the last time I bought them.

But as I delved deeper into the bag the flavour got stronger and stronger. By the time I had got most of the way through the bag of crisps it had become unpalatable and I noticed that I could not see much potato through the herbs that were piled on them. I emptied the bag onto my plate and there was a massive mound of herbs. There was quite a long queue at the counter so I didn’t want to go back and complain, so instead I took a couple of photos and sent them to the customer service email address on the bag.

The next day I had a very polite and apologetic email from the company thanking me for alerting them to the problem and explaining that by sending them a photo of their packing codes they had been able to highlight the issue and take steps to resolve it. In order to try to win my allegiance back they also offered to send me some samples of their flavours, and I was happy to receive them.

Last Saturday I came home to find a card from the postal service saying that they had tried to deliver a parcel but nobody was home. I could collect it from the post office on Monday. I was intrigued because I was not expecting anything and had not ordered anything. On Monday I attempted to collect it, but the office had closed by the time I got there so I was unable to do so and the intrigue and expectation was heightened. Today I was able to go to the office in time and this is what I received:

IMG_0293.JPG

It was in a sealed box, but you can see how generous the company has been. In fact you can’t because several large bags are hidden under the pile! I was impressed, and my allegiance may have been won (as long as I like the flavours).

It got me thinking about whether this has some parallels for churches. We believe so much in our ‘product’ (Jesus) but I wonder whether for many people their experience of church has been poor in the past and they have drifted away or stormed off. Others simply don’t think we have anything they’d want. But what if we were as lavishly generous as this company? What might that look like?

And while you’re contemplating that (if you are) let me remind you that God is far more lavishly generous than the most lavishly generous crisp company on the planet. You want proof?

He’s created this incredible planet and doesn’t charge us rent to live here.

He has provided an ecosystem that is perfect to sustain life and give us all we need to survive (subject to human greed causing it and making it worse and human-caused climate change).

The resources contained within the planet are more than enough for our needs (subject to human exploitation and pollution).

He has created us amazingly. And he has created us with the capacity for communication between us, meaning that we need not be alone (something he has been keen to avoid since day 1 (or if you prefer day 7).

He has created us with the intention of being in close relationship with him, and has given us the choice whether or not to accept that. He intends that the relationship lasts beyond our linear timeline.

He has repaired the damage caused by our rejection of him at great personal cost (see Easter).

He offers to fill us with his Spirit so that we can experience life more like he intended it and be gently transformed to be more fully human in relationship with him and others.

And that’s just for starters.

So how are you doing in your thinking about how churches can reflect God’s extravagant generosity?

How can we be more generous with our time, with our listening, with ensuring that all are welcome and included, with our grace, with our joy, with our encouragement, with giving dignity… ? Did you notice that none of these things cost a penny? That means anyone can do them.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

spiritual fitness centres?

I have taken the plunge and joined a gym (and yes, that is a mixed metaphor as they don’t have a pool). I have done so in order to continue the rehabilitation process following my surgery earlier in the year.

fitness Series 1It’s the first time I have joined a gym and the induction was an interesting experience for a novice like me. The first thing I was asked was what I wanted to achieve. I said that I want to improve my general fitness and stamina and also rebuild some of the muscle bulk that I had lost during the past six months (the gym is aware of my cardiac surgery). So the instructor showed me a number of machines and devices that I could use in order to achieve these goals. I am not sure that some of them would not have been out of place in a medieval torture chamber, but they are all designed to work on a different set of muscles, or to improve general stamina and fitness. A couple of days afterwards I am now feeling the burn in some of the muscle groups that weren’t previously exercised too much. But I am also confident that I can achieve what I want to achieve if I am regular in my attendance and work hard when I am there.

When I was on some of the machines that work on the basis of resistance against the muscles they are designed to enhance I was shown how to adjust them by engaging different quantities of weights. As I am not a weightlifter and am looking to start slowly most of the time the instructor advised reducing the weights to a level that I think others might categorise as ‘puny’. Apparently it’s important not to start too high but to build up gradually so that the muscles get warmed up and are not stressed. I can cope with that, I think.

I also had a go on a treadmill – getting up to a decent walking pace and adjusting the angle so that I was walking uphill. I felt quite pleased with myself until I noticed that further along were some people who were running rather fast on similar machines. In comparison to them I was going at a snail’s pace. But walking fast is what I need to do to raise my heart rate without over-stressing, so I am happy with that.

I imagine that a lot of the lycra-clad gym-dwellers would not think my efforts are very impressive. I reckon that there are plenty of people who are older than me who are able to lift more weights and go faster. But that’s not the point. I have to start from where I am and aim for the goals I have set myself. Others will be fitter, faster and stronger and will other goals that are not mine. I wish them well in that but I am not in competition with them, I am on my own journey of fitness.

Reflecting on my first experience of the gym I wonder whether there are a few lessons that we need to learn in churches.

I think it’s really important to recognise that people are at different places in their journey of faith, and to consider how we might help them to grow from the point they are at now, rather than offering a one-size fits all solution. When I was getting ready to be baptised at the age of 13 I had a series of sessions with a more experienced Christian who helped me to understand more of my faith and how to follow Jesus more closely. Sadly after I was baptised that stopped and I was not mature or confident enough to ask that we continue. But can we offer that to those who want it?

And on a similar theme do all of the small groups in a church operate at the same ‘level’? My personal preference would be that all of them are exploring the same theme at the same time so that the church as a whole has this in common. But almost all of the study material I have seen always seems to be pitched at just one level. I am not talking about academic levels or even levels of spiritual comprehension, but what if people were offered the opportunity to explore the same theme in different ways that suited their preferred learning style and also that understood that people want to explore at different depths, and which enabled people to engage with the theme in ways that most suited their spiritual preferences? The material might be more complicated to create (although I would love to have a go) but I think it would be far more healthy and helpful in the church and perhaps more people might engage with the groups. And what if then there were collective opportunities for people to share together what they have experienced in their groups and encourage one another? Would that be a healthier model of church?

I’m not expecting that we introduce spiritual torture devices to achieve this – the Spanish Inquisition should remain a hideous historical event (cue “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”). But I think we should recognise that people are at different stages in their journey of faith and that they find it easier to encounter God in different ways. So some people find meditation and contemplation really helpful while others find that they are closer to God in serving others and still others prefer energetic worship, but all can enable an encounter with God. (For more on this read Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas.)

I have found my spiritual home in the Baptist church family. One of the distinctives is an emphasis that all of us can encounter God, can serve him and other people, and that he speaks through whomever he chooses to speak (so we should listen to one another). We summarise it as ‘the priesthood of all believers’. As I see it those who are in ‘leadership’ positions are there to serve the church and enable everyone to grow in the depth of their relationship with Jesus and to live out their faith in their daily lives. They are not ‘in charge’, nor are they more important than anyone else. There’s not meant to be a hierarchy, but somehow it feels as if there is, with people putting others on high spiritual pedestals (or at least on small raised areas) above them. Other church traditions have a more overt and acknowledged hierarchical approach. But we do ourselves a disservice and perhaps even undermine what God’s Spirit is doing in each of us if we start comparing ourselves with one another and playing a version of church Top Trumps. It’s a fine line between seeking to emulate those we admire and feeling like we are unworthy because we are not like them. But God doesn’t want you to be like anyone else, he wants to help you to become the best you that you can be.

I am sure that I am being idealistic here. But what’s wrong with pursuing an ideal? And if I am going a long way down this line, maybe we should stop calling ourselves churches and start to call ourselves spiritual fitness centres in order to embed these ideas?

Or maybe not.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

A Theology of Humour (part 3)

laughing ladyThis is the third (and in my view the weakest) part of the dissertation. Having established what humour and a sense of it is; and (I hope) that God has a sense of humour and is the source of humour; this section attempts to apply some of that to life in church…

A Theology of Humour – The Punch-Line

“If you’re not allowed to laugh in Heaven, I don’t want to go there.”

We have seen from the Bible that God is a God of humour.   We will attempt to draw certain conclusions from this humour concerning God, our relationship with him, and our relationships with One another within the Church.

God is the source of laughter

This suggests that the ability to perceive humour is part of mankind’s innate being.  If God is the source of laughter, he is the one who gave it to humanity as part of the gift of creation.  On particular occasions his activity leads to the laughter of individuals.  We have concluded that God does have a sense of humour.  If humans are made ‘in his image’, and we too have a sense of humour, it does not take much thought to see where that sense of humour comes from.  If this is so, then we can surmise that before the Fall mankind’s humour was devoid of the destructive elements that it has today.

We have all experienced painful jibes in the guise of humour on various occasions.  Mockery in the hands of men and women can be a weapon that cuts deeper than any blade.   In the hands of God, however, it is not tainted with the desire to hurt or abuse.  It is part of what amuses God to see the efforts of his enemies to frustrate him and his plans.  We must be careful not to attempt to use mockery  in the manner that God uses it, for to do so is to elevate  one’s status above others, contrary to the ‘first shall be  last’ principle that Jesus taught his disciples.

God’s humour teaches and rebukes.

God’s sense of humour educates those who experience it.   The educational experience is not a painful ‘telling off’ but a warm-hearted pointer in the right direction.  It would appear that this is a much more beneficial and positive use of humour than mockery.

God does rebuke us, of that there can be no doubt.  The messages delivered through the prophets were often condemnatory.  But God sometimes seems to use humour to help his people understand him.  At this point we refer back to Jonathan Miller’s sabbatical from reality.  Humour allows us to look at ourselves in a manner that is less painful than being told ‘straight’, but is nonetheless searching.  Jesus used humour in this fashion, and one feels that in the hands of God, humour is a loving form of rebuke.  Thomas Carlyle wrote, “True humour springs not more from the head than from the heart; it is not contempt, its essence is love.”  In the hands of man, it has the potential to have the same effect, but also the potential to be destructive and heartless.  The former use of humour is to be encouraged, particularly in sermons and Christian ‘educational’ material, as a means of communicating truth.  The latter use of humour should be vigorously discouraged, and attempts should be made by all in leadership to eschew the use of humour that harms.

An example might be to mock or mimic someone in the congregation from the pulpit to make a point in the sermon, or worse still to get a cheap laugh.  Such a use of humour not only degrades and humiliates the person, but demonstrates a marked lack of sensitivity and compassion on the part of the preacher who is apparently delivering the ‘Word of God’.  At such times one suspects God is leaving him to it.  The problem is that non-Christians see ministers and vicars in particular as representatives of God and may be offended and put off seeking him.   Furthermore, if the congregation senses an opportunity to entertain others, they may pick up on the ridicule of the individual concerned, or feel that since the preacher did it, it must be all right…

On this subject, Karl Barth wrote the following words.   “As ministers we ought to speak of God.  We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God.  We ought therefore to recognise both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory.  This is our perplexity.  The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison.”  Barth in his theological reflections has unearthed the incongruity of preaching, and whilst one does not wish to write much on homiletics, it is worth bearing this incongruity in mind if one intends to preach: the incongruity being the lofty ambition of speaking of God and the inadequacy of our ability to fulfil that ambition unaided.  All that preachers can do is seek God’s assistance, and seek to remove any potential for offence that they might give – the offence of the gospel is surely more than sufficient for the average person!

The playful God

This is one of the most important things we have discerned in the writing of this paper.  God has a sense of fun, of play.  In the later chapters of Job, God seems to be enjoying his Creation for its own sake.  The image of a boring old man in a white robe is dispelled in the face of this revelation; the sorrowful, sombre Christ is seen as inaccurate; the God of wrath and judgement is seen with a pleasant smile on his face.  It would be quite wrong, however, to throw away all these images of God.  He is a God who judges, he is angry at sin and its effects; Jesus was at times sorrowful and sombre, not least during the Passion.  What is needed, and what one hopes has been achieved, is a more balanced picture of a God who is sad when people reject his love, who mourned the death of his Son, yet enjoys the company of mankind, whom he created for that purpose, and has a sense of humour and fun that he is not afraid to enjoy and share with them.

Some may fear that this portrayal of God diminishes his greatness, or is even blasphemous.  This is not so.   Surely a God who is not afraid to enjoy himself is greater than a god who must always remain austere for fear that some might not take him seriously.  God is sufficiently great that he need not fear the opinions of men – that will not diminish his greatness – and he has made us sufficiently in his image that when we see the humorous side of his nature, we are attracted to him.  As William Ingo once said, “I have never understood why it is considered derogatory to the Creator to suppose that he has a sense of humour.”

The Church and God’s humour

We began this paper by suggesting that the presence or absence of the humour of God has implications for his Church.  Now that we have established the presence of his humour, we need to explore the implications further.

We have already mentioned the inappropriate the use of humour in preaching, above, and we must not lose sight of that.  At the same time, we must not be so serious in preaching that we put off even the most lugubrious of people.  Humour is a useful tool for communication of truth: Jesus demonstrated that brilliantly.  It is also a useful tool for exegesis, when used to illustrate truth and challenge with it, rather than using it to explain away the challenge.

Humour should invade the serious and weighty aspects of the Church, bringing a little levity and light.  Of course there are times when humour is probably inappropriate, as it was in the passion of Christ (for example during the celebration of Communion, or Eucharist) but there are equally times when a sombre attitude would be inappropriate (for example during celebrations of the resurrection).  In the same way as our perception of God needs balance, so does our worship of him.  What is being advocated here is not a descent into mirthful disorder, but a recognition of the place of humour in worship.  It is perhaps not surprising that many of the growing churches in this country are those that use contemporary forms of worship, and are generally described as ‘lively’.   Their sense of joy is infectious to those who attend (although they are as prone to falling prey to excesses as the rest of the Church), and one wonders whether they might not be presenting the humorous side of God to the world, albeit unwittingly.

If the Church is truly to be the body of Christ, his representatives on earth, we need to reflect him in our life-styles.  Again one wishes to emphasise that this is not a call to flippancy, but a call to recognise the importance and significance of humour.  It is an anathema to find a Christian who never smiles, and who is never amused, who is never joyful, who has no sense of humour, for that is to deny the presence of the living, laughing, humour-loving God in the person of the Holy Spirit in the life of that Christian.  At the same time, the  ‘happy-clappy’ Christian who never admits to having any  problems denies the serious side of that same presence: to  deliberately misquote Bill Shankly’s cliché about  football: Christianity is not a matter of life and death,  it’s more important than that.

Reinhold Neibuhr suggests that humour has an even more important role than we have previously suggested.  “Humour is, in fact, a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.”  Niebuhr’s argument behind this startling statement is that faith, like humour, deals in incongruities.  The existence of humour and laughter at it is the starting point on the journey to discovering the greatest incongruity of them all – that God should love those who rejected him, and that he would be prepared to die for them.  If this is correct, the omission of humour from much of the Church’s activities over the last 2,000 years is all the more lamentable.  Not only is humour the prelude to faith, it is a gift for teaching and evangelism, and the absence of it in our faith has the opposite effect.

What this paper has endeavoured to show is that the Church  has missed much of the humour of God for the best part of  twenty centuries, and in so doing it has misinterpreted  and misapplied much Biblical truth and has portrayed an  inaccurate, boring, overly-serious image of that God to  the non-Christian world.  Murray Watts in the introduction to his collection of sketches, ‘Laughter in Heaven’, sums this up perfectly.

“There is no place for a church which never resounds with the laughter of faith.  Such a church commits a crime against humanity: it has become boring.  There are many serious obstacles to spreading the gospel, but this is one of the worst.  It is no good blaming the world for being blind to the truth, when we are blind to it ourselves.  If we are not free, how can we liberate others?  If we are not faithful to the uniqueness of the Resurrection experience, to the delight and heavenly joy which is ours for eternity, if we are dull, we shortchange our fellow men. …   The laughter born on that Easter morning is a gift  from heaven, which draws us closer to that day,  when ‘God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and  death shall be no more, neither shall there be  mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the  former things have passed away.'”

Amen.

Bibliography

The books listed appear in the order in which they were quoted in this paper, followed by those which were read but not directly quoted.

Castle (ed.) The Hodder Book of Christian Quotations (Hodder, London, 1982)

Metcalfe (ed.) The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations (Penguin, London, 1986)

Chambers 20th Century Dictionary (W.R. Chambers, Edinburgh, 1985)

Oxford English Dictionary H-K (Oxford University Press, London, 1933, Reprint 1970)

Koestler The Act of Creation (Hutchinson, London, 1964)

Drakeford Humor in Preaching (Zondervan, Michigan, 1986)

Durrant & J. Miller (eds.) Laughing Matters – A serious look at humour (Longman, Harlow, 1988)

The Holy Bible, New International Version (Zondervan, New York, 1978)

W.G. Morrice Joy in the New Testament (Paternoster, Exeter, 1984)

Muir (ed.) The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose (O.U.P., Oxford, 1990)

Good News Bible (Bible Society, London, 1976)

Trueblood The Humor of Christ (Harper Collins, New York, 1964)

Wilcock The Saviour of the World: The Message of Luke’s Gospel (IVP, Leicester, 1979)

Morris The Gospel According to Luke (IVP, London, 1974)

Garrett My Brother Esau is an Hairy Man (Scottish Journal of Theology, (33), pp. 239-256)

Niebuhr Discerning the Signs of the Times (Scribner’s, New York, 1946)

Watts Laughter in Heaven (Minstrel, Eastbourne, 1985)

 

The Way, Vol. 31, no. 3 (July 1991)

Theology Today, Vol. XLVIII, no. 4 (January 1992)

Y.T. Radday & A. Brenner (eds.) On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (Almoud Press, Sheffield, 1990)

M. Good Irony in the Old Testament (Almoud Press, Sheffield, 1965)

Paul’s first letter to the Confusions

[This is an extract of a letter that was recently found down the back of a sofa and which I have ‘translated’. Its authenticity has yet to be established.]

To the Christians in Confusia

Gravy and peas to you all. [The exact translation of this sentence is unclear].

I’m writing to you because it has come to my attention that there’s a lot of misunderstanding among you about some things I’ve written to other churches and some of the things Jesus said. So let’s ignore what I said about churches being a temple of the Holy Spirit or the Body of Christ. And ignore what Jesus said about being salt and light. Those have clearly not resonated with you. Here’s a new metaphor for you.

You are the fortress of God. You should pull up the drawbridge and prepare for a siege. Get ready to lob lots of steaming [the precise translation of the next word is uncertain] from behind your high walls at the people who come into range. Expect some retaliation from them but don’t worry: that should just confirm to you that you’re doing church right.

Occasionally you should organise raiding parties to go out into the surrounding area and see who you can capture. Once you’ve dragged them back inside the walls of your castle make sure you indoctrinate them well.

When going on raids put on your armour, sit on high horses and denounce anyone you meet from up on your high horses. Don’t forget to disinfect thoroughly at the end of the raid and measure your success by the amount of negative feedback you generated: the more the better.

It’s a good idea to create your own language so that people outside won’t understand you. If they don’t know what you’re saying you can’t be blamed if they misunderstand you.

Even though some of you may have to live or work outside the walls of the fortress on no account should those people try to engage with the people around them on their own. Safety in numbers! Don’t let anyone know you belong to the fortress.

If some of the more misguided of you feel that you really ought to be engaged with the wider community then focus your efforts on being nice people rather than actually talking to them about how much God loves them and who Jesus is. Polish your Spiritual armour (see the letter I wrote to the Ephesians for more about that) and work on the basis that people will want to join the fortress because of how shiny you are. Keep the sword of the Spirit well-hidden when outside.

In conclusion, my dear Confusions, keep your defences up and your heads down. That way you won’t be bothered too much by the people around you.

Yours entirely ironically

Paul.

doing things properly

One of the things that has occupied a lot of my thinking recently is our EBA Gatherings. These are opportunities for us to get together from across the Association. (In case you were unaware the first one takes place in the Southern Sector this Saturday at Romford Baptist Church. You can find out details about all of them here – it’s not too late to decide to come!)

This year we are holding three Gatherings across the Association rather than one Assembly. We have started doing this in alternate years in order to seek to involve as many people as possible. Doing things this way allows us to develop different but complementary themes – “Rejoicing in the Gospel” and “Pass It On!” – which will be explored in different ways. It allows for the involvement of far more people in the planning and delivery of the events. This is also partly a response to geography: our Association covers about 6,500 square miles, so travelling to one venue for the Assembly, wherever it is, means that some people have to travel a long way. Having three Gatherings means that people don’t have to travel so far.

I believe that these will be wonderful events that will be a blessing to all who attend. We are immensely grateful to the churches who are hosting us and to everyone who is contributing in some way.

But there’s a niggling thought in my mind that feels that we are not ‘doing things properly’ by doing this. And I am not sure I can put my finger on why that is. It might be to do with not fully expressing our unity as an Association: you might suggest that this Trinitarian way of working reflects our experience of God but we are not God and this way of working does reveal more about our three-ness more than our one-ness. It might be to do with us not having a common experience. It might simply be that organising one event is easier than organising three. Or maybe it’s that we have not only done it this way once before and last time it looked very different.

I know from my conversations with some of you that this is also something with which local churches are wrestling. With the advent of things like Messy Church, Café-style services and other expressions of church within the wide circle of church life new congregations are emerging. Similarly there are some churches that have a thriving midweek youth or children’s work but see very few of them in attendance on a Sunday morning. And we try to work out whether these are routes for people to follow to join in with mainstream church life or whether they are ‘church’ in themselves. And part of what lies behind that wrestling is wondering whether we are ‘doing things properly’.

I’m not offering a definitive answer to that as it will vary from church to church. But I wonder whether a part of the answer to my niggles about the three sector Gatherings and the local churches wrestling with different expressions of church / congregations is the same – perhaps we should ask what those who attend think it is! There’s a danger that when those who are used to a more traditional way of doing things try to define the way things should be done we revert to our comfort zones and thus stifle what God is trying to do – in effect we tell him that he can’t do things that way. I think Jesus preferred to allow those he was reaching out to on the margins of life to define what ‘it’ was: he met them where they were and almost seemed to improvise (temporary) community in response to them.

So the Samaritan woman at the well, for example, finds herself in conversation with a male Jewish stranger – a conversation that leads to her becoming an evangelist and Jesus and his friends staying in the town for an extra few days. The joyful entourage on the way into Jericho finds that the star of the show leaves the party in order to eat with the collaborating, thieving tax collector Zacchaeus and as a result there is spiritual, social and economic renewal. A leaders retreat for Jesus and his disciples becomes a feeding frenzy of healing, teaching, loaves and fishes for 5,000+ people… I hope you get my point. Because it seems to me that what wound Jesus up more than anything was religious people telling him that things had to be done in a particular way. And I would rather not wind him up.locked

Perhaps we need to be less worried about whether we are ‘doing things properly’ and instead allow Jesus to improvise community with us: joining in joyfully with what he is doing.

one another

A while ago I created some visual clues to a series of phrases from the Bible that all relate to ‘one another’ – how we should treat one another and be with one another. I remembered this recently and offer them to you for your amusement and perhaps edification. The answers are at the bottom of the page and I apologise for any brain strain this may cause…

Enjoy!4-give

 

serve

lettuce-spray-4practice-hospital-teafellow-ship

bee-de-votedconfused-voleon-her

bear with.JPGharm-on-kneea-gry

forgive one another; serve one another; let us pray for one another; practice hospitality to one another; live in fellowship with one another; be devoted to one another; love one another (it’s a vole); honour one another (on her); bear with one another; live in harmony (harm on knee) with one another; agree with one another (angry with ‘n’);

 

links to a narticle wot I roted

A while ago I was asked to write an article for the Baptist Union magazine Baptists Together. They were putting together an edition about children, young people and families and asked me to write something a little bit provocative. So I did.
That magazine has now been circulated around Baptist Churches and you can download a PDF version of the magazine here. There are lots of excellent articles in it on the wider subject of church for all… and there’s my article too! The article has also been published in a shortened form by ethicsdaily.com and you can see part one here if you are interested.

Be blessed, be a blessing