wooing and woeing

I think Bibles ought to have a strong warning on them, along the lines of cigarettes:

Warning: reading this book can seriously damage your religion.

I am preparing for Sunday morning today and reading a passage in Luke 11 where Jesus goes a bit ‘woe-crazy’. He ‘woed’ those who were trying to get people back into a right place with God by legalism but were neglecting the things that God thinks are most important: love and justice.

He ‘woed’ the people who believed that if only people would stick to following religious rules and regulations they would be all right, where Jesus’ message was one of grace, repentance and reconciliation with God. It’s the difference between trying to woo and impress someone by precisely following a formula from a book on dating and being in a relationship with someone where you listen to each other and love each other.

The hypocrisy Jesus was condemning is like some of the tabloid newspapers who are gleefully (and rightly) campaigning against pornography and endorsing the government plans to put filters in place while at the same time showing scantily clad men and women because it boosts sales? Have a look at these banners copied from a well known tabloid today and you will see what I mean:

sun 1 sun 2It is very easy to get carried away with the ‘woeing’ and cheer Jesus on from the sidelines: “Yes, you tell them. Point out their hypocrisy! Show them up for their religiosity! Give them the old ‘left-right’ combination: you neglect justice and you don’t love God!”

And as we join in the cheerleading we fail to notice that we can be guilty of the same things. Are we more concerned about religion than faith? Are we more concerned about the lifestyles of others than about what is going on inside ourselves? Are we hypocritical?

One of the traditional accusations against churches is that they are full of hypocrites. Well there is a difference between being a hypocrite and someone who is striving to follow Jesus and sometimes fails. One will think they are doing fine, the other is dissatisfied with sin and seeks God’s help to change. One is keen to point out the faults in others, the other knows that they need God’s grace and forgiveness. 

Please God keep me in the second group.

And to close I think there should be a second warning on Bibles:

Warning: God can transform your life if you read this book.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

of camels and needles

You’d almost think I have some sort of plan for this blog (only ‘almost’). Yesterday I wrote bloggerel about grace, based on Jesus saying to a rich young man, “You lack one thing…”

I wrote that I would come back to the passage itself and today that’s my intention. You can find the passage in Luke 18:18-30.

In the context of Luke’s gospel this passage comes as part of a series of encounters Jesus had with different people where he confronted contemporary concepts of ‘greatness’ and how God views us differently to the way that humans look at each other. It seems to me that the rich young man who approached Jesus wanted him to validate his ticket into heaven. He reckoned he was good enough to get into God’s good books and, to the outside observer, he would have been a prime candidate. He was a good man (notice that he called Jesus ‘good’ and perhaps wanted him to reciprocate). He was rich, which was (and is?) seen as a sign of God’s blessing on him.

But what he lacked was the ability to put God first in his life. He was religiously righteous, but it was a skin deep religiosity that was not bearing fruit in his life. He knew about God but he did not know God. He was living for himself – keeping the law – but failed to sense God’s heart. Why did Jesus tell him to give all his money to the poor? It was not just to see if he would let go of his money and the hold it had on him – if that was the case Jesus could have told him to give the money to anyone. It was to see if he shared God’s love and compassion for the poor and needy and if he was willing to do something about it.

DESCRIPTION: Man lying trampled on the ground, camel walking off CAPTION: AND THEN HE HAD A MUCH BETTER IDEA OF EXACTLY HOW HARD IT WAS FOR RICH FOLK TO GET INTO HEAVENThe narrative moves on from this point to a consideration of how to get a camel through the eye of a needle. Creative ideas have been offered in response to this including that it referred to a small gate into Jerusalem through which camels would only fit if they had been unloaded first (no archaeological or historical evidence of this) or perhaps a contemporary suggestion of using a liquidiser (apologies to the squeamish) but they did not exist in Jesus’ day. It is quite likely that he was using a contemporary idiom or joke about things that were difficult to make the point that it is incredibly difficult for those who are wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God.

Why? Because we are tempted to rely on our own resources much more readily than we are to rely on God. Because we can easily get distracted from God by ‘stuff’. Because we can become self-absorbed and fail to see things how God sees them (ignoring the poor, for example).

You will have noticed that I said ‘we’ in the last paragraph. Judging wealth purely on average income I am including in the ‘we’ anyone whose monthly wage is greater than £1000. That is the average wage of the world based on averaging all of the average wages. However only a quarter of the world’s population earn this amount. The average monthly wage of the poorest in the world is about £21. So you are part of the ‘we’ if you earn more than that a month.

How’s it looking for your camel? How’s your relationship with God? How’s your relationship with your wealth? 

Be blessed, be a blessing.



Cap & DiplomaIs it just me, or are scams getting more elaborate? Are criminal minds getting more intelligent? Look at how many super-villains have PhD qualifications: Dr Evil, Dr No, Dr Octopus, Dr Doofenshmirtz and even Professor Moriarty! Where are they getting these qualifications?

Yesterday I heard of an elaborate scam where someone contacts the victim and tells them that they have a delivery coming. The delivery is a bunch of flowers and chocolates, but unfortunately the delivery note and card have gone astray. In order to verify delivery and their identity the recipient is asked to swipe their credit card through a hand held device. The criminals now have all they need to duplicate the card and go on a spending spree.

Most scams and cons work on the basis that people are naturally greedy. We want something for nothing when it is offered, or at least want something for less than it’s worth. Of course the maxim, “If it looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true” is well worth applying in those circumstances. As is, “Don’t give out your credit card details if you did not initiate the transaction.”

I wonder whether scams and frauds like these are the reason why some people are more cautious and reticent about church and God. It looks too good to be true that they are being offered grace, love and forgiveness free of charge. It looks too good to be true that this community of people exist for the benefit of those who are not yet members (to paraphrase Archbishop William Temple). What’s the catch?

Well, perhaps people should be cynical. It’s true that the grace, love and forgiveness are not free of charge. They are not available as a transaction for us, but are the foundations of a relationship with a loving God which he has initiated but in which we need to participate. And just as the forgiveness cost him everything, the transformation in us may cost us friends, ambitions, time… We do people a disservice if we say that it’s free and there’s no cost involved.

It’s sadly also true that many churches don’t exist (solely) for the benefit of non-members. Visitors can receive a less-than-warm welcome in some churches, and I am not just talking about cold buildings and lukewarm coffee. The notices we share in our services are more often than not about what is happening in the church for church people.

But when it’s as God intended… woohoo!

Please God help us to be more like the way you intended us to be, help me to be a better free sample of Jesus.

Be blessed, be a blessing.


Busy day today, so only a quick thought…

[Thinks about Aston Martins]

There, did you find that helpful?

Maybe it’s just me, but I find that all sorts of random thoughts pass through my mind in a day, and only a small percentage of them materialise into something vaguely meaningful. I feel sad for the thoughts that don’t make it, the ones that only put in a fleeting appearance in my conscious (or worse still, subconscious) mind and then are lost forever.

They are like the people who audition for one of these TV talent shows and don’t make it through to the televised stages. Or sportsmen and women who are good enough to have a trial, but are not picked.

Walking blurOr what about the people who were a part of Jesus’ birth narrative but did not make it into the final edit of the gospels? Was there a Mrs Innkeeper (there often is now in nativity plays) who had run out of clean bed linen and had told her husband not to admit anyone else? Were there sheep owners (often shepherds were hired to look after the community’s sheep) who heard of the desertion and wanted an explanation? How did Mary’s Mum cope with the news that her daughter was pregnant and was claiming that there was no father?

I reckon most of us would not have made the final edit of the gospels. But that does not mean that we are insignificant or unimportant. Not to God. Not to Jesus. Just because you are not in the headlines does not mean you are not an important part of the narrative.

The ‘no room’ inn means that ‘God with us’ was born in the most humble of circumstances – entirely appropriate for his lifestyle. The sheep owners had to entrust their sheep to the rough and ready shepherds so that they could hear from the angels on the remote hillside and the least-regarded people of society could be the first to visit Jesus. Mary’s family must have been torn apart by the news, which is probably why she was sent to stay with her relative Elizabeth and we now have the Magnificat as a result (Luke 1:46-55) as a wonderful expression of praise to God.

You matter. No matter how insignificant you think you are.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

coin-cidentally speaking

Regular bloggites may have gathered that I like gadgets. I love to see and experience changes in technology, marvel at innovation and see how these change the way I carry out tasks.

One of my favourite gadgets is very simple in concept, clever in the way it carries out the task and effective in achieving the desired outcome. It’s a coin sorter. Yes, you did read that right. It’s a coin sorter.

There is something wonderfully satisfying about the mechanics involved. Let me try to describe the process to you. Coins are dropped into the hopper at the top. Inside an inclined platform with ridges to catch the coins rotates (driven by a battery-powered motor). As the platform rotates coins slide into the ridges and as it rotates they slide outwards and down onto a slope that travels all the way around the outside of the sorter. At even points around the outside are slots of differing sizes, through which the different coins will drop into tubes that receive the different denominations of coin.

Now that is clear you will understand why it is such an enjoyable gadget to use. The simple mechanism is elegant and effective. The ‘trundle… thunk’ as coins travel along the slope and drop into the tubes is immensely satisfying. So far I have not had a single coin drop into the wrong tube and I have had it since February.

Of course my description of the coin sorter does not do it justice. It would have been better to have shown you a video of it in action, but my WordPress package does not include the ability to upload video. You can see a similar one in action here on YouTube.

But even that does not do justice to actually experiencing it in action and having the machine sort your own coins for you.

When I was at the vicar-factory I can remember studying the Sociology of Religion. I was sceptical about it because it seemed to be an analysis of faith at a superficial level. Indeed that is one of the criticisms I have of many of the humanist / atheistic critiques of the Christian faith – they seem to exist at a superficial, theoretical level that does not do justice to my experience. I understood why when I read a book that contained this analogy.

If you look at a stained glass window from outside you can see some of the shapes and images. You get an idea of the colours, and if the lights are on inside the church you may even get an idea of the beauty. But you can only fully appreciate a stained-glass window from inside. Until you enter the church and see from inside what it is like you will never fully appreciate it.

And I think the coin sorter is of a similar order (if less spectacular). You only fully appreciate it when you use it.

And it is the same with the Christian Faith. Unless you experience it for yourself you will never fully appreciate it, understand it or even simply ‘get it’. You can only do that when you surrender to God and allow him to be the most important in your life. You can analyse all you want, work out all the arguments for and against, even attend church your whole life, but until you say ‘yes’ to God you won’t be able to experience it. That’s why we call it ‘faith’ – it takes a step of faith to take all that you know, all that you have seen in others, all that you have understood about God and say ‘yes’.

If that’s true, how does it affect the way you (and your church) relate to those around you?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Portsmouth, Rhode Island, USA: Police charged Gregory Rosa, 25, with a string of vending machine robberies in January when he: 1. fled from police inexplicably when they spotted him loitering around a vending machine and 2. later tried to post his $400 bail in coins.

china crisis?

A few years ago I had the immense privilege of travelling with a group of Christian leaders in mainland China. It was a wonderful experience and one that has made a profound impact on me, and on my perspective on life.

I was humbled and in tears when we were introduced to a lady who looked like she was 200 years old, yet she had the spark of youth in her eyes as she told us part of her story through an interpreter:

She had been a nurse during the Cultural Revolution, working in a Christian Mission Hospital. One day soldiers came and took away all of the doctors and many of the other staff, leaving a handful of Christian nurses to care for all the patients. Each week the soldiers would come and beat them, demanding that they deny their faith in Jesus. Each week they would refuse.

With tears running down her cheeks she told us of how, to her shame, one week it got too much for her and she told the soldiers that she was no longer a believer, so that they would leave her alone. When they left she told us of how she wept and wept because, like Peter, she had denied her Lord. She prayed for forgiveness and strength.

The next week the soldiers returned to beat the Christians and were leaving her alone. She went up to them and told them that she had been weak when she denied being a follower of Jesus, but she had asked him to forgive her and he had, so they had better include her in the beatings again. She told them that even though they beat her every week for the rest of her life she would not stop following Jesus.

The soldiers left, and never returned.

What a wonderful woman! What incredible bravery, honesty and faith.

Later in our ‘tour’ we went to a Buddhist Temple as tourists. I was fascinated with how the Chinese people were buying temple currency and then taking it up and placing it before a Buddhist Priest, who had his head bowed in prayer. I was told that this was to buy prayers for themselves or for those for whom they were concerned. I was also told that the temple currency was recycled and sent back to the place where people were buying it to be bought again.

I moved from where we were stood and managed to get a view behind the table where the money was laid and see the priest who was bowed in prayer.

Except he was not praying.

He had his phone out in front of him, under the table, and was busy texting. I presume he was not texting prayers to Buddha!

The contrast between these two experiences has stayed with me. To me they illustrate the difference between living faith and dead religion. One left me energised, blessed, humbled and joyful. The other left me sad, dulled and upset at how people were being exploited.

May I always be more like that old lady than that priest.

Be blessed. Be a blessing.

Unfortunate translations of the Bible can lead to inappropriate understandings of what Jesus meant for us to do. He was not condoning bribery of the police when, in his parable about settling with your opponent before going to court, he mentions that if you fail to do so you will end up in prison. ‘You will not get out’, he concludes, ‘until you have paid the last copper’. (Luke 12:59, RSV).

Of course this could just be a corrupt text.

(From http://jokes.christiansunite.com)

the adaptability anachronism

I have had computer problems this week. My computer crashed.

This has had a number of knock-on effects…

I had been given a new laptop (the ‘old’ one was less than 3 weeks old).

I have had to reinstall all my software again.

I have had to reload all my files (thankfully I had done a back up to an external drive the previous day).

I have had to spend a lot of un-planned-for time doing all of this.

But the most frustrating thing of all was that it crashed while I was working on Sunday morning’s sermon. My notes and two-thirds-written sermon have vanished. So today, instead of spending some time with people and sailing my boat with them, I will be back in the study praying that God hasn’t forgotten what he wants me to say and that I can hear him again.

I am not sure if I am more disappointed at the  loss of the sermon or the loss of the sailing with friends. My sailing boat is relaxing for me and a good opportunity to spend some time with friends and catch up with them. It is also really enjoyable. The sermon, on the other hand, may have needed another day spending on it.

We often have to adapt to our circumstances as they change. Evolutionary Biologists will tell you that this ability to adapt is one of the reasons that humans are at the top of the food chain.

I think that Christians ought to be very adaptable people too. The book of Acts in the Bible could be renamed the book of Adapts: Jesus’ followers had to rethink so many different things as they learnt and discovered what it meant to follow him in what could be hostile and antagonistic environments. And while there are many ways in which we should not conform to the way the ‘world’ is, and we believe in a God who is unchanging in his love, justice, mercy and grace, there is every reason why we should adapt to our circumstances just as the Adapts of The Apostles records in the early church…

So why is it that Christians seem so reluctant to adapt, to embrace change, to be flexible? We can come across as Luddites: people who resist change at all costs. I dare to say that if our first century ancestors had been as inflexible as we can be, the church may not have made it into the second century!

We need to discern what is immutable in our faith and what is changeable in our traditions. I suspect if we asked Jesus that question his response would be far more generous and far wider than we might be!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

An Amishman lived on a quiet, rural highway. But, as time went by, the traffic slowly built up at an alarming rate. It became so heavy and so fast that his chickens were being run over at a rate of three to six a day. So he called the sheriff’s office and said, “You’ve got to do something about all of these tourists driving so fast and killing all of my chickens.”

“What do you want me to do?” asked the sheriff.

“I don’t care, just do something about these drivers.”

So the next day the sheriff had the county go out and put up a sign that said: SLOW: SCHOOL CROSSING. Three days later, the Amishman again called the sheriff and said, “That sign didn’t help a bit. They are still hitting my chickens.”

So the next day, the county put up a sign that said: SLOW: CHILDREN AT PLAY.

Again, no change. So the Amishman called and called, every day for three weeks. Finally, he told the sheriff, “Look, your signs are just not working. Mind if I put up one of my own?”

The sheriff told him, “Sure thing, let’s see if yours works better.”

He was willing to agree to anything to get him to stop those daily calls. Well, the sheriff got no more calls from the Amishman. After three weeks, he decided to call the Amishman and see how things were going.

“Did you put up your sign?”

“Oh, I sure did. And not one chicken has been killed since. I’ve got to go. I’m very busy.” And he hung up the phone.

The sheriff thought to himself, “I’d better go have a look at that sign. There might be something there that WE could use to slow down drivers…”

So the sheriff drove out to the Amishman’s house, and he saw the sign. It was on a whole sheet of plywood. Written in large, yellow letters were the words: NUDIST COLONY.

the antidote to envy

You might just have noticed that the Olympic Games are taking place in Britain at the moment. (Technically they are the ‘London Games’ but events are taking place all over the country so I am widening the net to be inclusive.) Given how difficult it has been to get tickets for events, it is interesting to me how many of my friends have managed to get them. I know this because they keep posting photos on Facebook and Tweeting about how it is at the different events and venues.

It would be possible to feel quite jealous of these people. The steady flow of photos and comments could feel like salt was being rubbed into the wounds of our failure to get any tickets.

But actually I am thrilled when I see and read these things. The joy and excitement my friends are experiencing is quite infectious. I know that they are not boasting or thumbing their noses at those who have not got tickets. They want to share their excitement with their friends.

When we are not as privileged as others it is easy to allow jealousy and envy to lead to bitterness and resentment. I think the antidote is in the Bible: ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’. If we have an open-hearted attitude to others and seek to empathise and share their lives our lives are enriched by the lives others live. If we are happy because others are happy then there is less room for envy. Even the ‘weeping with those who weep’ is enriching as it helps us to stand with and alongside our friends who are in difficult circumstances and that is a real privilege. How do we do that? We seek to love people as Jesus loves them. Ask God to give you his live and grace in abundance.

Be blessed, be a blessing (and keep posting the photos of the Olympics if you are blessed to attend).

Some Olympic-related (vaguely) Tweets from Milton Jones (@themiltonjones):

In South London man in white track-suit didn’t appreciate me trying to put out his Cornetto which was on fire.

And so the Olympic Games begin. I’m particularly looking forward to the Mental Gymnastics.

Olympic show jumping: have just put bet on little door opening in back of Greek horse and soldiers coming out to steal medals.

They don’t like you playing Ludo in those Games Lanes do they?

‘Ye Shiwen denies doping.’ So Do Ping came second?

the parable of the lost pen

There was a man who had a favourite pen. It was not an expensive pen, but it wrote nicely and he had bought some refills for it so he could continue to use it for a long time as well
Pilot Begreen Green Tecpoint Rollerball Pen 0.5mm Tip 0.3mm Line Black Ref 145101001 [Pack of 10] as being more environmentally friendly.

One day, when he was looking to write something with his pen, he could not find it. It was not in the pen pot on his desk. It was not obviously in view on his desk. He started to look under different piles of paper on his desk. It was not there. He looked on the floor under his desk. It was not there. He decided that one of his family had ‘borrowed’ it, so he accused them of nabbing it.

They all denied that they had nabbed the pen, and were a bit hurt by the accusation because they knew that he was very protective of the pens in his study.

The man continued to search for the pen in all of the usual places that the pen often turned up in. He checked his briefcase and other bags. No pen.

He checked a folder he used to put sermon notes in. No pen.

He started checking some less usual places. Still no pen.

The man was frustrated that he had lost the pen. He still had a couple of refills left for it, and he really needed to use the pen.

So he went out in his car to the stationery store and looked for a similar pen. There were none on the shelves. So the man bought some other pens and soon forgot all about the old pen.

The man reflected on how churches sometimes treated people like that. People can drift away and while we make efforts to talk with them and encourage them to come back, some don’t. After a while other things replace them and we forget about those people, who feel hurt and upset. The man wished it was not like that and resolved to try to do better in his church.

The story has not ended, however. Because this morning the man picked up a folder he had not used for a month. When he opened it the lost pen fell out. How the man rejoiced! He went out into the streets and danced around, shouting that he had found his lost pen. (Actually that last sentence is fiction). The man was pleased that he had found his lost pen, however, and resolved to look more carefully next time it went missing.

And the man reflected that Jesus had said how much rejoicing there is in heaven over one ‘sinner’ who repents. He reflected that God never gives up on us, even when we give up on ourselves. He remembered that he himself was a frequent cause of rejoicing in heaven. He asked for God’s help to show his love and grace more effectively and ‘normally’.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

how does God answer prayer?

As hinted at in yesterday’s brief bloggage, I want to reflect a little more on how God answers prayer. Let me say right at the outset that I believe he does answer prayer. And yes there are three main ways he answers:



“Not now”

There is much that could be said in that, and it is a very simplistic analysis of how God answers prayer, but if you think of those as being vast lakes there is much to be explored on the surface, under the surface and around the edges of each of them.

However yesterday I mentioned that I had received good news and that lots of people had been praying that a committee would make the decision they did with the outcome that they did. This leads me to ponder what happened spiritually:

a. They were unaffected and uninfluenced by God – it was simply that they reached a conclusion that I liked. The prayers made no difference.

b. God over-ruled their minds and wills and got them to reach that conclusion in answer to the prayers. The prayers made all the difference.

c. God helped them to think clearly and see all the evidence and reach a fair and just conclusion on the basis of that, which happened to be what I was hoping for. The prayers helped.

d. Variations on those possibilities.

My belief is that c. (or a variation on it) happened. I knew the outcome I wanted, and I prayed that this might be the outcome. But I can’t believe either that the prayers did not matter, nor that they were so influential that God forced people to reach that decision. If it’s the former, then prayer does not matter and we are wasting our time, yet I know from my own life that prayer does make a difference. If it’s the latter then God is showing favouritism, is willing to ignore some people’s free will to benefit others, and I don’t see that in the Bible. So that leaves me with c.

While I (and others) were praying for a particular outcome, I found that as the committee meeting got nearer I could not pray that God would make them give me what I wanted, for the reasons outlined above. Instead I was praying that they would give my case a fair hearing, that they would be given wisdom in how to respond, that they would use their intellect and compassion honestly, that others would not be disadvantaged because a decision to fund an operation for me meant that funds were unavailable for others… and grace for me to accept whatever decision they made.

I think there’s a lot of truth in this clip from Evan Almighty… (Morgan Freeman is God in this wonderful film)

I believe that those prayers were answered, and it reminded me that persistent prayer often enables God to shape our prayers to be in line with his will.

I think this enables us to help God as we pray. There are some prayers God can’t answer. If two or more Olympic athletes pray that they will win at least one of them will be disappointed. But if they pray that they will perform to their best and offer their performance as an act of worship to God, then all the prayers can be answered positively. Perhaps we need to pray first that God will show us what to pray!

Be blessed, be a blessing.