I’ve watched high winds throw trees around. It feels like the politics of the moment; all change. But is it for the better, worse, or just more of the same? I don’t have the answers but it does feel as though I’m standing on a tipping point. I pray that whichever way we go, it is Christ’s way: The way of love in a broken world. The way of love shown, not just in the Christmas that is past put in the journey that continued as Jesus grew up. That journey, and mine, is now becoming more serious once again. On Wednesday I will be putting on ash, and starting the lenten time of inner reflection. A time to look into my life with Jesus so that I can truly follow him in the way to the cross, and join him in his death. Then, with Jesus still holding my hand, I can hope to rise again, a little less fallen, a little more holy.
Now is the time when The Cast of Christmas Reassemble for Easter:
Take the wise men to the Emperor’s palace.
Wash their hands in water.
Get them to say something about truth.
Does anyone know any good Jewish jokes?
The one about a carpenter
who thought he was a King?
The one about the Saviour
who couldn’t save himself?
The shepherds should stand with the chorus.
They have a big production number –
‘Barabbas, We Love You Baby’.
Mary? She can move to the front.
We have a special section reserved
for family and close friends.
Tell her that we had to cut the manger up.
We needed the wood for something else.
The star I’m afraid I can’t use.
There are no stars in this show.
The sky turns black with sorrow.
The earth shakes with terror.
Hold on to the frankincense.
We’ll need that for the garden scene.
Angels? He could do with some angels.
He could really do with some angels.
Step this way please.
My! How you’ve grown!
(Steve Turner from “Steve Turner – Poems“, published by Lion)
Recently, I went out for lunch and on the next table were a young couple with a small child. She was able to sit up but probably wasn’t quite walking yet or talking. She made a little noise, but just excited sounds, and joyful sounds. What she could do wonderfully was smile, and look at you, look at you with big innocent eyes. A window back to innocence, a time before sin, a glimpse of Eden. Yes, I know, she was probably a right little madam and had kept her mother up most of the night before. But in those eyes there was no concept of doing wrong, just innocence.
I can imagine God looking upon that child with a wistful smile, remembering his creation before the fall. Remembering when, “God looked at what he had done. All of it was very good!” (Genesis 1.31). Indeed, all of the first chapter of Genesis, through until the third verse of chapter two, is about innocence. A time before our fall. A time to look back to before we focus on tackling the consequences of our loss of innocence during Lent.
These thoughts then led me to think of Jesus talking with his disciples (Matthew 18.1-3), “…the disciples came to Jesus and asked him who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus called a child over and had the child stand near him. Then he said:
I promise you this. If you don’t change and become like a child, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven”.
But how can I recover that blind, animal innocence of a child? The simple answer is that I can’t. Nor should I want to. The innocence that I am called to, post fall, is something far more than the innocence that was lost. A small child is innocent because they do not know right and wrong. So, if they cause harm it is not from any inner malice; they are unable to see the consequences of their actions, nor are they yet equipped to control their actions. Their innocence would be very dangerous for an adult. It would be like giving a toddler a hand gun! They would be completely innocent but many could die, including them.
No, I am called to an open-eyed innocence. An innocence in which I know right from wrong but am no longer corrupted by that knowledge. I need to allow the Spirit to change me until my inner motives and drives are motivated by love, and only by love. I am very, very far from this state. But over the years that I have been working with the Father, I have found that his Spirit has indeed worked to make me more innocent; more like Jesus. It is a slow process, at least with me it is. I get a little better, and then slip back again. I feel like Mary’s little lamb in a variation of the old nursery rhyme: “Mary had a little lamb, it’s feet were made of lard. For every single step it took, it slipped back half a yard!”
Thankfully, God is forgiving, kind and patient with me; and slowly I seem to be getting better. I am slowly learning what Jesus meant when he prayed for his followers (see John 17) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%2017&version=CEV). A long prayer often summarised by the instruction to be “in the world but not of the world”. This is a prayer that all of Jesus’ followers might be innocent in a fallen world, just as Jesus was innocent in a fallen and corrupt world.
The secret again is in letting the Spirit change me inside, because it is from the motivations inside that all the evil that I do comes. This is, again and again, at the heart of Jesus’ good news to the world. I’m not going to produce lots of quotes, but a few such passages include: Mark 7.18-23, Matthew 15.15-20, and 1 Timothy 6.5-10.
It is in this way that I hope to become innocent once again, but with my eyes wide open; innocent in a fallen world, as wise as a snake while being gentle as a dove (Matthew 10.16). As this change happens, I find that my attitude to life changes too. I have become less anxious. I am more content and worry less (see Matthew 6.25-end).
I think of that little girl again. I remember my own daughter as a little girl. I remember that wide-eyed look of innocence and joy at being alive. I hear my little daughter’s infectious giggle. I remember, and I smile, and I pray, “Father give me more of that”.
“Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!”
I wish I had money for every time I heard someone say that.
Earlier this week I led two high school assemblies on the theme, “Compassion for Prisoners.” I have visited prison so I described the high walls and locked doors. I got them to imagine the sense of the world closing in on you. I had an acute sense the claustrophobia, something I don’t normally suffer from. All this and I was only a visitor! So the thought of being in a small locked room all day, with others too, is truly terrifying.
Then I asked them to imagine being locked in one of those cells, with no one caring about you, and asked, “Would you like someone to have compassion on you?”
Then I hear in the back of my mind, “But they’re criminals. Many have done terrible things. So why not, they deserve it?” Then, I hear, “Yes, they do. But so do I!” I say that because I hear Jesus’ words from Matthew 5.21-22 (CEV)
“You know that our ancestors were told, “Do not murder” and “A murderer must be brought to trial.” But I promise you that if you are angry with someone, you will have to stand trial. If you call someone a fool, you will be taken to court. And if you say that someone is worthless, you will be in danger of the fires of hell.”
I hear Jesus condemning ‘anger’ as much as ‘murder’, because it is the ‘anger’ that has corrupted the heart. It is the anger that is the sickness, the murder is just the symptom. Now, I’ve never committed murder, but I have been angry. I have heard of things done and I’ve wanted vengeance; I’ve wanted to make someone hurt for what they have done. So that makes me guilty too. I am just as sick as a murderer, I’m just better at hiding it! Indeed, when I think of a criminal in prison, all I can honestly say is, “There but for he grace of God go I”.
I am no better inside me than anyone inside prison, so I should have compassion for those people locked away. This is not soft, this is the heart of the Christian faith. This is certainly not playing down the crimes committed, or the need for society to take action. I know I need to have compassion because I know that I am no better. I also need to have compassion because I know that Jesus loves and died for those people in prison, just as much as he died for me. Paul makes this absolutely clear in Romans 5.8 (CEV), “But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful.” God loved me long before I became a Christian!
Not to have compassion is in effect to say that those people are worthless. Jesus, is just as clear about the huge crime that would be, “And if you say that someone is worthless, you will be in danger of the fires of hell.” (Matthew 5.21 CEV)
So Jesus seems to come out as being weak on crime; a wish-washy liberal. But I don’t think so. He is basically saying that, ruled by our corrupted human passions, we are stupid: I’m stupid, you’re stupid, we’re all stupid. Jesus is saying that when we are ruled by hate, and malice and fear we make decisions that harm us and all around us. That makes us stupid. We’re so stupid that we hate, even though we know that hatred leads naturally to more hatred. We’re so stupid that we want vengeance from the courts, knowing without a doubt, that vengeance can only lead to hate, in us and in the person punished.
I am not saying that the police, courts, sentences, consequences and even prisons are not needed. Far from it. I do not believe that this would be Jesus’ view either. Jesus’ teaching is hard hitting about the devastating consequences of human evil. I do believe that the Spirit is leading me realise that any steps that are taken must be ruled by compassion. Compassion for the victims and the potential victims, so that they have the best protection possible from harm. Compassion also for the criminal, so that all possible is done to heal the harm done, and lead them away from future crime. For us poor fallen human beings crime seems inevitable but in our response I hear Jesus saying loud and clear, “Never give in to hate or vengeance”. It is so obvious that hate and vengeance just corrupt us even more. Jesus’ teaching makes it clear that tackling crime with hate and vengeance is as stupid as tackling a fire with petrol.
Jesus knows what I am like; what we are all like. He knows that love and compassion aren’t weak. Jesus knows that without his love, me, my society, and all society is doomed to a cycle of fear, crime, punishment, hate and more crime. We pay the huge cost too, on average over £33,000 per prisoner per year. Not to mention the police and court costs.
Jesus knows how we human beings work. Jesus knows because he is one with the Creator; he has our instruction manual.
I come to Jesus and I find that I’m far from perfect, but that I am loved, loved, and loved some more by a God who really should have given me and my race up as a bad job long ago. If God can love me that much, then how can I aspire to anything less. If God can love all people that much, what right have I to condemn.
“I wont eat it,” a loud toddler’s voice shouts out.
“What’s wrong sweetheart?” says a gentle female voice.
“It’s got peas. I hate peas!” the toddler shouts again.
The woman, I take to be the little girl’s gran, does her best. She takes the peas off the plate onto her plate. But the girl keeps shouting, “I hate you!” before tipping her fish and chips across the table and onto the floor, screaming and crying.
I think just about everyone has seen, heard, or been on the receiving end of an encounter like that. That little girl was behaving badly, but she was very young. Perhaps she was tired, or stressed by being away from her mam. Whatever the reason, things were soon calm again.
If that had been an adult though, the police would have been called or at the very least the person would have been thrown out of the restaurant. We all know the difference between a toddler and an adult. We all have different standards for the two. After all the little girl will hopefully grow out of her tantrums.
The problems come when we adults keep on behaving like toddlers. I’ve seen it so often. Someone’s jostled in a crowded bar. No great surprise. A drink is spilled and a ‘grown man’ explodes with anger. It is so easy to become a toddler again. But God calls us to grow up and do better.
We all know that murder is wrong. But murder comes from anger and hatred. That is the simple point that Jesus makes in Matthew 5. Jesus, is telling his fellow Jews that although their law only says, “Do no murder” they need to do more. If they are to be God’s people they need to deal with their anger and jealousy and everything that can lead to murder. They are to set an example of what Godly behaviour should look like. As a holy people they are to encourage the rest of the world to want to be God’s people too, by their example.
Calling someone a fool, may sound mild but the part of us that makes us want to belittle and put down others is far from harmless. That inner bully, doesn’t die when we leave school. It’s very real in me and everyone, as far as I can see. That sort of behaviour not only damages the victim, it twists and corrupts the person making the insults, and all around. Jesus knows all of this, that’s why he does all that he can to get this message across. That is why he says that anyone who calls his brother a fool is in danger of been thrown into the fires of Gehenna. Not ‘hell’, but ‘Gehenna’. Gehenna was the smouldering rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem, the place where all that was disgusting was thrown. A place that would have repelled his hearers, like an open sewer would repel us.
Jesus’ use of he word ‘Gehenna’ paints a picture in itself. By using it Jesus is saying that by belittling others I am making myself rotten and disgusting inside. Again, Jesus was encouraging his fellow Jews to live up to their calling to be an example of Godliness for everyone. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to have happened. They mostly rejected Jesus.
Those words of Jesus from Matthew 5 now speak to me and all Christians today. I read and ask myself, “Am I any different to the people around me?”. I know that I am not a naturally good person but has the Spirit’s work in me made a difference? I hope so. I pray that the Father’s love is changing me. I hope my life shows something of the wonder of the God who loves me and lives in me. Still, Jesus’ warnings all those years ago help to stop me getting too full of myself. They remind me that there is still so much of the angry toddler in me; and I can do far more harm than just throw my dinner.
Jesus’ words remind me that the wrong things that I can do can do so much harm. They remind me that I still have so far to go… so I’d best get going.
God seems to me to have a great sense of humour. But then I love jokes, which is just as well because it often feels as though I’m living in one. I needed a sense of humour as I started to read the report on sexuality by the Church of England but I need to read it through properly before saying more.
When I feel, stressed I often turn to humour and to be honest I’ve also been a little stressed about the Vision Day for my churches coming up this Sunday. A bit more about the Vision Day later but first a joke that made me giggle, it’s from an American website which explains the ending:
A woman had just returned to her home from an evening of church Services, when she was startled by an intruder. She caught the man in the act of robbing her home and yelled: ‘Stop! Acts 2:38!’ (Repent and be baptized, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven.)
The burglar stopped in his tracks. The woman calmly called the police and explained what she had done.
As the officer cuffed the man to take him in, he asked the burglar: ‘Why did you just stand there? All the old lady did was yell a scripture to you.’
‘Scripture?’ replied the burglar. ‘She said she had an Axe and Two 38s!’
Knowing Scripture can save your life – in more ways than one!
As I said, that made me giggle, and then things slipped back into perspective. The Bible can indeed save my life in lots of ways, one of those is to remind me that this is God’s work that I’m trying to do and so the stress, if any, is His and not mine.
Thankfully, I am simply called to be a servant of Jesus. As a servant of Jesus I am then to care for Jesus people, God’s family. To do that I have only two priorities, discipleship and mission. I’ll explain: When Jesus was asked how we should live he said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (see Matthew 22.36-40).
So, all that I do should be focused on helping me to love God more and to show that love in the way that I care for those around me. This is true for the Church around the world, the Church nationally and the Church here in my country parishes; it is true for all people, whether they know it or not.
So when I talk about my only priorities being ‘discipleship’ and ‘mission’, what I mean is living that simple guidance from Jesus. For me, ‘discipleship’ is about learning to love God and ‘mission’ is about learning to love my neighbour. Or as my churches say on our website, we are:
Learning to put Jesus first
Sharing love & Good News
All this can sound simple, it can be written down in only a few words, but discipleship and mission are far from simple when I try to live them. At the Vision Day we will be seeking for ways to help us to be better disciples and to be better able share God’s love in our town and villages. The town and villages of this benefice each have a different character, as have the churches that serve them. God has made us different.
So, my prayer is for the Vision Day to be a new start for me and the people here. So that all of us can listen together to the Spirit. So that we can find ways that work for us and the people we serve to love God and to love our neighbour. We will also be asking to be shown how we can to support one another more.
God loves the people in our town and villages, so we will be turning to him to discover his plans that will ensure that his church has a future here, in our hearts, and out there in this world.
Another joke to end:
A man in London decided to write a book about churches around the country. He bought himself a campervan and set off.
He started at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), a very large church, he began taking photographs and making notes. As he did, he spotted a Golden Telephone on the wall and was intrigued with a sign, which read “Calls: £10,000 a minute.” Well HTB has a lot of rich members but £10,000 a minute is still pretty steep! So he found someone from the church and asked about the Golden Telephone. He was told, “It’s £10,000 a minute because that’s a direct line to God”. The man had lots of questions for God and was tempted to try the Golden Telephone but he just didn’t have that kind of money.
As the man travelled round the country, he found more Golden Telephones in cathedrals and important churches. But each time, the cost was £10,000 per minute, or even more.
Finally, the man was came to Norfolk and stayed in the Swan Inn in Harleston. While there he visited a little church. There on the wall was the same Golden Telephone, but this time it said, calls are free. The man was amazed and thankfully there was someone tending the flowers, so he asked about the Golden Telephone. He said, “I’ve been travelling all round the country and I’ve found lots of Golden Telephones like this one. Each time I’ve been that told it’s a direct line to God, but in all the others it’s £10,000 a minute, or even more. How come it’s free here?”
The woman, smiling said, “Your in Norfolk now, God’s own county, it’s a local call and free with the phone.”
Of course, I have to add that it would be free in Yorkshire too!
But jokes aside, we all have a direct line to God. I plan to use mine to learn to love God more and my neighbour too. What about you?
I can be so stupid at times. Quite a lot of the time in fact. So much so that I’ve had to make friends with my stupidity. It’s with me so much that there is no point in us being enemies.
I’ve found a wonderful quote: “The probability of someone watching you is directly proportional to the stupidity of your actions.” I found it along with an amusing a picture of a cat with its head stuck in a tube of biscuits.
The cat certainly looks ridiculous. I don’t know whether the saying is true but it is certainly true that you remember every time someone sees you doing something stupid. Indeed, reflecting on my life, I’ve been so stupid I must be under constant surveillance!
I still shiver when I remember making my school friends laugh at an impression of one of our teachers. He had a hunchback and I was doing a Quasimodo impression that had them all collapsing in laughter. Then they all went quiet, but it took me a while to notice. When I did notice the silence, I realised that someone was behind me. There was that horrible prickly feeling down my back. I knew from the horror in my friends’ eyes that my teacher was standing there at my back. I still feel the horror and the shame. That day it certainly felt like, “The probability of someone watching you is directly proportional to the stupidity of your actions.” I only wish I had being stealing biscuits like that cat.
After finding the cat picture, I looked online at t-shirts and found one with the logo, “Quick, Jesus is coming. Look busy!” That same school boy humour that had got me into so much trouble all those years ago, crept back and made me giggle.
Then I thought about the real Jesus and the phrase that became his catch-phrase, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” That phrase is repeated in the gospels but I was drawn to the version from Matthew 4.17. But when I looked it up in two translations pretty true to the Greek, I found that more accurately the phrase should be, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
For years, I had thought of that phrase as meaning, “Jesus is coming back soon”. I thought it was like Jesus’ saying in Revelation that he will come soon (see Revelation 22.7 and 22.12). But the phrase in Matthew 4 is very different. In the gospel Jesus is saying that the kingdom of heaven is very close. This isn’t about a future hope, this is about the here and now.
Wherever Jesus is, then the kingdom of heaven must be close, in fact it is probably already there. So the call for me to change my ways so that God can transform me, is even more urgent than I thought. It is as though I am still aping about and playing the fool, not noticing that everyone has gone quiet. This time though, it isn’t my crippled teacher standing behind me; no, this time it’s Jesus himself. I can feel the prickles down my neck already. I can feel the shame. Thankfully, Jesus is used to this stupid, little brother of his. He is far more forgiving than I deserve and so loving that I have no words adequate to describe my awe of him.
So, I am going to do what I can to repent, and allow the Spirit to make me more loving and forgiving and generous and kind and all the rest. I am going to do it now because the kingdom is near. I’m going to do my best now, because sometime I’m going to have to turn around and face Jesus. It would hurt so much to see disappointment in those eyes of love. But, some day, turn around I must. What will I see? What indeed? If I ever get the guts to find out, you’ll be the first to know!
I am overwhelmed by the generosity of people who donated clothes and other practical help to aid those internally displaced in Syria:
God is love. That’s the problem with God, He’s not fussy. God takes no notice of my advice of who he should speak to and who he shouldn’t. He goes ahead anyway and speaks to whoever he wants to. He calls the respectable and the definitely not respectable, and has no understanding that there might be a difference; no understanding of standards! God is no respecter of human standards, and I for one am so grateful.
I am nothing special. The son of a sparky, working on Smiths docks in Middlesbrough. I went to a big rough, town comprehensive. I’ve always been awkward and argumentative. I had no time for God when I was growing up. I didn’t see God as a monster; I just didn’t see him at all. I didn’t believe that God did or could exist. I would argue that with anyone. I would argue that the sooner people stopped believing in God the better we all would be. We should grow up from believing in the ridiculous. How could adults believe in an imaginary friend, didn’t sane people stop all that stupidity at infant school?
I laughed, and jeered, and God seemed silent. But then he would, because he didn’t exist, did he?
God let me be and let me argue. God then spoke to me through my teenage obsession – teenage girls. I went to university and there was a girl that I really wanted to get to know better. Then I noticed that she was going to an event at the Student Union building, so I went along too. It was great, there were far more girls than boys!
It turned out to be a Student Chaplaincy event. These were Christians! Everywhere, these were those strange people who were mad enough to believe in a God. But they seemed alright: They seemed, well, how could I put it…, well they seemed ‘normal’. More than that they were more caring and genuinely human than any group of people that I had met. They weren’t perfect, but they were good, kind, generous and caring. They were patient too, patient with all my arguments and questions.
Over time I found that I was beginning to believe too. Looking back, it wasn’t any clever arguments that made the difference. It was one thing only that did it. It was the eloquence of their lives. It was the way that somehow, ordinary people like me could be so different: So much more loving, so much more alive!
So God is no respecter of persons. He took no notice of the fact that I kept bad mouthing him, and kept on loving me anyway. He loved me enough to find me, and introduce himself to me through those young Christians at University.
And did I meet up with that girl? Did we get together? The answer is, “Yes”, but not for long, and that’s another story.
Happy New Year!
Well I hope it is, I really do. My hope that for me and for everyone is that the next 12 months are special; filled with joy and happiness. I hope for more peace and reconciliation and far less war and hatred. I hope too for a better me.
I want a new start. I need one really. I’m not all that good, and I don’t feel very worthy of God, and even less worthy of the honour of wearing my collar the wrong way around. Thankfully, God doesn’t seem too put off by how I feel. New Year can bring a new start. Thankfully, God is on the job. I may not be all that good, but he is. His Spirit is at work in me. I wonder what God’s New Year resolution is for me?
New Year is not a religious feast. It’s a secular celebration. A festival based on the turning of a man-made counting system. But, the theme of beginning again is so attractive. So seductive. The hope of a new start, of a new life with all the muck of the past put behind me IS very much at the heart of the Christian faith. I need it, everyone needs it, because no one is perfect. Indeed, that’s the problem: I can never be perfect but I worship a perfect God.
That’s where Jesus comes in. A way to the perfect God through one of us – a human being and an ordinary one at that. Not a prince, not rich. Just normal, with a mother and family. Very like so many families today, growing up with a step-dad rather than his real father. He was flesh and blood like me, but also fully God. The bridge between humanity and divinity – the way home. The way back to being childlike and innocent once again. But Jesus is more than just a bridge to heaven, as if earth doesn’t matter at all.
Jesus existence shows that earth is good enough even for God, or at least that is how the world was made, that is how me and everything was made – baked to perfection and good enough for God. I am good enough for God to live in. I may not be perfect, or even all that good, but God’s love seems to see right through to a son that he loves.
I fail. Oh, I try to love, to be generous and kind, and the Spirit is making me more of all those things and more. But, I know that there is still so much more to be done. Jesus offers me a chance of a new start, today, with all those who are making New Year’s resolutions. But even better Jesus is there to give me and anyone the chance of a new start anytime. So when so many New Year’s resolutions have been forgotten; February time perhaps, or even Easter; then I can still start over again. The great thing about my Father is that he doesn’t make me wait for January 1st to come around again.
I hope for a truly happy New Year, I really do; for me and for everyone. I hope that the next 12 months are special; that they are made up of 365 days filled with joy and happiness. But whatever is in store, I wish for God’s presence and blessing every second and every step of the way. I pray this old blessing for me and for everyone throughout 2017 (Numbers 6:24-26 (CEV)):
“I pray that the Lord
will bless and protect you,
and that he will show you mercy
May the Lord be good to you
and give you peace.”
I seem to be rushing around so much today, no Christmas peace, at least not yet! Don’t get me wrong, I love the Christmas services, they make Christmas, but they are not peaceful, at least not for the one in charge of making sure that all goes smoothly. No, for me the Christmas peace begins at lunch-time. The worship services are over, and now I can relax with family and friends. I can enjoy the feast, and as I relax all the message of Christmas seeps in. Then the peace comes, along with the love and hope. God’s gift of himself never disappoints.
But all that is yet to come (at least as I write this). So, as I dash, I’ve spotted two videos that I want to share:
and Happy Christmas!