plank-eye

Some things are so blindingly obvious that we miss them. Jesus had worked in Joseph’s carpenter’s workshop for 20 years. He knew about wood. He knew too how much it hurt when you got a speck of sawdust in your eye. It would have been a regular occurrence as there were no safety glasses in those days. It was highly unlikely that there would have been any mirrors so he would have been reliant on someone else to look in his eye and help him get the speck out.

cutting woodSo he knew what he was talking about when, in the Sermon on the Mount, he said:

‘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? 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? 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.” (Matthew 7)

It’s comical isn’t it. Someone trying to help another person with a speck of sawdust in their eye whilst ignoring the plank in their own eye! How would the plank-eyed person see to help the other one? Would the plank poke the other one’s eye? I think this is another example of Jesus’ sense of humour. But he was also making a serious point. And it wasn’t about the difficulty of trying to help the person with the speck of sawdust… it was about the hypocrisy of the plank-eyed person.

How could they ignore the glaringly obvious problem in their own life and concentrate on someone else’s smaller problem? That this is the meaning becomes much clearer when you realise that, like this bloggage follows yesterday’s, Jesus’ speck/plank observation comes immediately after he had be talking about the error of judgement in judging others. Here’s a reminder if you don’t want to look back to yesterday’s bloggage:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Ah.

Yes.

Awkward isn’t it?

Not so funny.

It’s up there with “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone” (John 4).

It saddens me immensely when I come across Christians who are judgemental of others. I feel a deep sense of disappointment. Not because I am perfect. Not because I am judging them (or at least I try not to). But because Jesus seems to have been so strongly against people judging one another.

You see I reckon we all suffer from plank-eye. None of us is perfect (we know that too well, don’t we). All of us struggle. All of us have areas of weakness in which we stumble more frequently than others.

Those who are tempted to look for where others fall short of God’s standards should pause and look in a spiritual mirror. And if they think they are perfect they should beware of pride!

Those who feel they have the right to condemn others should feel the weight of the stone in their hands and the weight of Jesus’ words.

That does not mean that we should not speak about God’s standards, but when we do we do so as those who recognise the truth that “all have fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23) and that all of us are entirely dependent on his grace and forgiveness.

Be blessed, be a blessing

it’s a yes from me

A good friend of mine is currently appearing on Britain’s Got Talent. He got through the live auditions and this week it will be decided whether or not he will go through to the Live Semi-Finals. He’s Richard Jones and his audition is here. If you haven’r seen it, watch it. If you have, watch it again. And then if you get the chance to vote for him if he gets that far, please do so. He’s a great bloke and a great magician.

I don’t usually watch Britain’s Got Talent but I did watch Richard’s audition. I imagine that when he had completed his audition and the crowd were going wild and the judges were applauding he must have been feeling really good. And when he got four ‘yeses’ from the judges he must have been so excited.

But there were other people who, in the middle of their performance, suddenly heard a claxon sound and a big red X appeared above them as a judge said that they did not want to send them through. That must have been so off-putting, and then for some they would have got a second X and then a third and then a final X that meant that they were out. How must that feel to be publicly voted out? I imagine they felt awful, discouraged and perhaps even hurt.

I applaud the courage of all who have auditioned, whether or not they have got through, because they were willing to have a go. I don’t think I could do it even if I felt I had the talent!

When Jesus warned people against judging others I am pretty sure he did not have TV talent shows in mind. But he said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured.” (Matthew 7 1-2)

When he spoke about us being judged in the same way that we are judging I don’t think he was just talking about divine judgement. I think he was saying that we can expect to receive the same sort of treatment that we give out to others: an obvious example of this is that in Britain’s Got Talent or similar shows there’s always a nasty, harsh judge and they often receive a harsh reception from the viewing public.

How we make other people feel will reflect back on us.

If we are constantly putting other people down, belittling them and criticising them negatively, then we should not be surprised if people start attributing those characteristics to us. We will gain a reputation as a judgemental, negative person. I think it even extends to gossip (which is a form of judging): if we gossip about others we gain the reputation as a gossip and won’t be trusted.

But I think that the opposite is true. If we look to affirm, encourage, lift up, bless and support others we will gain the reputation of being an affirming, encouraging person. If we refuse to engage in gossip we will gain a reputation that we can be trusted.

I think this is part of what Jesus meant when he said that when you look at a tree you know what sort of tree it is by looking at its fruit.

The great thing is that it’s never too late to make a fresh start, and God gives us his Spirit to help us. We may need to repair some of the damage we have caused in the past, but that will also have the effect of starting to change our reputation for the good.

It’s a yes from me.

Be blessed, be a blessing

PS I apologise for the relative scarcity of bloggages recently. This has been due to a lack of time and opportunity to write anything. I see that Mr Grenville-Stubbs has been taking advantage of this by posting a few items. Sorry about that too.

Don’t forget to vote for Richard Jones!

Sodium Chloride based nostalgia

There are quite a few passages in the Bible that trouble me. Some trouble me because they are like a mirror and make me reflect on myself and I don’t come out looking too good. Others trouble me because they are so far outside my understanding and experience that I don’t know exactly what to do with them. And, if I am honest, some trouble me because God doesn’t come out of them looking too good.

[gruesome alert] If you are squeamish you may like to skip today’s bloggage – or just skip. This is more of a sketch pad on which I am doodling some thoughts about God than a well-reasoned theological dissertation.

Let me give you one that has been puzzling me recently. It’s in Genesis 19:1-29 and concerns Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and his family. It is a sordid tale that starts with two angels turning up at Lot’s door (which is lovely) but then spirals into depravity and hideousness I won’t recount here, but if it was ever made into a Hollywood film like Noah it would definitely be an 18 Certificate (especially if you dare to read beyond verse 29 [shudder].

The narrative ends with Lot and his family fleeing for their lives from Sodom while the Bible tells us that “The Lord rained down burning sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah…” How do we equate that with the God of love and mercy that we see elsewhere in the Bible? He does not come out of it looking very good.

It gets worse. As they are fleeing Lot’s wife decided to look back and admire the carnage and “she became a pillar of salt.” Really? Just for looking behind her? Come on God, that’s really cruel.Salar 3

I have wondered about this passage for a while and this is what I am hypothesising might have happened… I wonder whether the ‘burning sulphur’ was a meteorite strike. I have no geological evidence for this, but this is my conjecture. God’s warning to Lot to get out of the town immediately and head for the hills may have been because he knew that the meteorite was about to strike and there was no time to lose. God’s injunction not to look back may not have been so much about nostalgic reminiscing for the good times (IRONY alert) in Sodom so much as not wanting them to pause for a moment given the imminence of the event. Perhaps Lot’s wife was not so much turned to salt (sodium chloride) for her nostalgia as she was covered by hot ash and incinerated because she stopped to watch. The white ash would have looked like salt. They were heading for a nearby town and perhaps Lot and his family made it inside the safety of the walls but his wife had stayed outside and… well, you know.

Okay, that may help me understand what could have happened. I am not saying that this is what happened, but it helps me to think that it was possible in that way. It puts a plausible 21st century understanding of the Universe onto bronze age events to help explain what could have happened. If that is the case, this was more of an emergency evacuation than a summary execution.

But it doesn’t entirely let God off the hook. Because the Genesis narrative says that the burning sulphur / meteorite was God’s punishment on the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. If that is the case it’s even worse for God’s PR company because that would mean that when he set the Universe in motion and all sorts of celestial bodies starting whizzing around some / one of the smaller ones was set on a trajectory that would impact the earth at Sodom and Gomorrah at precisely that time, and that God would have planned it in advance because he knew of the evil of the inhabitants of those towns…

I am still troubled by this but have a few thoughts. One is that while we know God as a God of love and mercy, he is also a God of justice and we should not take that lightly. The second is that whatever the cosmic event was that destroyed those towns was it a deliberate act of a vengeful God or was it a cosmic event that happened and reminded people of God’s justice? I think that there is a subtle but important difference. Thirdly, is part of the reason that it is portrayed how it is in the Bible that this is how people viewed God in those days (sitting in heaven with his finger poised over a button marked ‘smite’) and we need to read that in the light of the New Testament revelation as well. The fourth is to look at what Jesus said, and he said that it would have been better for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah ‘on the day of judgment’ than for people who refused to welcome his followers who had come with good news.

This suggests that while the towns were destroyed by the cosmic event, the eternal status of the inhabitants was not settled by the cataclysm. I believe that the ‘day of judgment’ is when the God who gave us all free will honours how we have exercised it. If we wanted to be with him, he honours and accepts that. If we did not, he (disappointedly) honours and accepts that. Perhaps there were people in Sodom and Gomorrah who had called out to him even as the place was being destroyed. It would be just like him to respond to that call – like Jesus responded to the thief being executed next to him.

I am still bothered by this passage. But that is partly because I am not God and don’t understand everything. Perhaps it is because I can sometimes get too chummy in my approach to God and forget that he is G-O-D! Maybe it is also because I need to be wiser in how I interpret the Bible, not imposing my own views and prejudices onto it, being willing to wrestle with it and allow it to wrestle with me.

And of course while I hope there is not a meteorite out there with my name on it, I do need to bear in mind that who I am, how I am and what I do is all in the sight of a holy God.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

a rubbish bloggage

This morning I visited the emporium of a well-known retailer of stationery products (they were also stationary due to the effects of inertia, friction and gravity). I am not endorsing them over any other retailers, but their name is a type of paper-fastening device.

(The fact that it was a stationery retailer is incidental to the incident. But I thought I would tell you for atmospherics.)

Back to the narrative. There were several cars in the car park outside the emporium of this well-known retailer of stationery products when I arrived so I parked in an available space. (Of course it would have been much more difficult to park in an occupied space!) I went inside, made my purchases of stationery products that I required, and came back outside.

Kittens
Wrong sort of litter, but there are not enough photos of cats on the internet!

Several of the cars that had occupied spaces had gone and in the space that had been occupied by one of them was a pile of paper and packaging that seemed to have been discarded from whatever items the driver / occupants of that car had purchased. They were just dumped there.

I was indignant. It was not as if there were no rubbish bins nearby. It was not as if the packaging was so toxic that the occupants of that car had to jettison it urgently and would have needed specialist handling equipment and protective clothing in order to deal with it.

It was sheer laziness on their part.

I felt righteously indignant.

I had my hands full of stationery purchases from said emporium so I could not pick up the litter and put it in the bin until I had deposited my goods in my own car. I opened a door, put my purchases on the back seat, closed the door, opened the door to the driver’s seat, got in and drove off.

So much for righteous indignation. It lasted as long as it took me to get to my car to forget about the litter and move on. It was only when I got home, put my purchases in the study and sat down to write this bloggage that I remembered the rubbish and how I had failed to deal with it myself.

It is easy for us to be (righteously) indignant about the behaviour of others but before we start judging and pointing fingers we need to be careful in how we examine ourselves.

I hope nobody noticed the plank in my eye!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

It’s a no from me

gavelIt will not surprise those of you who know me that I am not a fan of the plethora of ‘talent shows’ that seem to be filling prime time television at the moment. I do wonder where we are heading as we have shows for singing, dancing, ice skating, diving, gymnastics, and even baking. I have lots of silly and facetious ideas that I had better not share here in case they are already in production!

I have a lot of problems with these shows. But perhaps the biggest is the judges. These people criticise and evaluate the performances of those who are performing and give them marks (or kick them out). I think there are several different categories of judge and we are given a combination of them in a panel:

The pantomime villain. This is the person who always highlights the negative aspects of a performance. They rarely have anything good to say and the audience often boos them (or cheer when they are criticised or have eggs thrown at them).

The comedian. This person makes comments for laughs. They may overact or overreact to a performance and try to project a larger than life persona to gain popularity.

The professional. They have been there and done that when it comes to the type of ‘talent’ that is on display. We are supposed to respect their opinions and they are often portrayed as the voice of reason.

The other one. This person will be there to complete the set. They may bring a counterbalance for someone else on the panel, their presence may ensure that the panel is representative of a cross section of society, or they may be there because nobody else was available.

I dislike the idea that these people are put in the position of judging other people. I dislike the idea that by virtue of being on the panel of judges some of them have the opportunity to be cruel or brutal and this is seen as entertainment. I dislike the idea that I am being invited to judge people too (including the judges, as I have just done above).

Jesus suggested that we should be very careful if we place ourselves (or others place us) in the position of judging. He said that we should be prepared to be judged by the same standards that we judge others, and that we should demand a higher standard of ethical behaviour from those who judge others. He suggested that before we exalt ourselves to point out the problem in someone else’s life we ought to sort out the problems in our own (optical plank removal anyone?).

Of course he was not talking about talent shows. He was not talking about light entertainment. He was talking about everyday life. He was talking about you and I.

Hmmm.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

power to the people?

In an era when we are all acutely conscious of the cost of gas and electricity, and Power Companies are replacing Banks as Public Enemy Number One in the media-led vilification stakes, two thoughts occur to me.

One is to ask myself how I would feel if I was working for one of these institutions when the media spotlight shone so brightly upon them? The media would have us respond to such institutions as we would a pantomime villain and boo them every time they appear. But they are not just institutions. People work for them. People work hard for them. People give their lives for them: electricity supply repair staff have one of the highest work-based fatality rates of all occupations but do we give them a thought (or a prayer) when we complain about prices, or about power lines being down after a storm? Isn’t it interesting that when the media want us to feel sympathy they interview ‘Barbara’ the pensioner who is experiencing fuel poverty not ‘Jane’ who works for an electricity company and is scared to tell people where she work for fear of their reaction?* Let’s resist the temptation to focus on faceless institutions and remember that people whom God loves are affected on all sides of a ‘story’.

On standby?
On standby: the telly or our discernment?

And the second thought… We are told that a sizeable proportion of our electricity consumption is for gadgets and appliances on standby. If we all switched everything off completely when we weren’t using it and allowed ourselves a bit more time for it to warm up or boot up when we wanted it we could save ourselves a lot of money. Part of the problem is that we like our ‘instant on’ lifestyle but we don’t want to pay for it. So instead we complain about how much our electricity bill is and blame the profiteering by the faceless companies *boo* (see previous paragraph). And we conveniently excuse ourselves from culpability.

This is not meant to be a political bloggage, nor is it defending price rises if they result in increased profit that enables companies to pay greater dividends to shareholders when the poorest in our country have to choose between heating and eating. But let’s be a bit more ‘savvy’ about how we respond to what we are fed as news-consumers / propaganda-receivers.

One of the most compelling events recorded about Jesus was when a woman was dragged in front of him, having been caught in the act of adultery. It was during the Feast of Tabernacles, when the people of his day would spend time in makeshift shelters to remind themselves of the journey through the wilderness as the Hebrews escaped from Egypt. Because they were in these makeshift shelters it was presumably not very difficult to recognise that something illicit was happening inside. Aside from wanting to ask why only the woman was dragged in front of Jesus and not the man, I have another question (to which I will return in a moment after a bit more narrative).

So Jesus was confronted by a crowd that was ready to carry out a summary execution by stoning (which was actually prohibited by the Roman occupying forces) and the conundrum of what to do. If he sanctioned the stoning to back up the Old Testament Law he was in breach of Roman Law and also lacked his famous compassion; whereas if he stopped it he was showing disregard for ‘God’s Law’ and thus could be discredited as a Rabbi. That was the trap which was laid for him.

So he stooped to the ground and started writing / doodling with his finger in the dirt. What did he write or draw? We don’t know. When they insisted that he give his verdict he told them that the one who was without sin should throw the first stone. And he carried on doodling in the dirt. One by one (and I suspect rather shamefacedly) the crowd dropped their stones and melted away quietly.

When Jesus had finished drawing he looked up. He asked the woman where her accusers had gone and I suspect her tear-stained face showed the first glimmer of hope as she said that there was no-one left. Jesus told her to change her life and make a fresh start, refusing to condemn her or condone what she had done.

And here’s the question that I postponed from the narrative: why didn’t Jesus tell the crowd to look at the woman and feel compassion for her rather than to look at their own life? I think it might be because the crowd had objectified the woman so that she represented all that was wrong in the world that they could legitimately hate. She was not a person: she was sin; she was adultery; she was unfaithfulness; she was evil. And those things needed to be eradicated, they were wrong, they could be condemned. The crowd-frenzy would not have been diffused by asking people to look her in the eyes because they would not have seen a person. They would have seen a faceless corporation – Evilco.

What’s a free sample of Jesus supposed to do in circumstances like that?

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

*Fictional people created by me to illustrate my point.

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!