Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Epilogue – The Last Word

Love

Reading: I Corinthians 13

You might have thought you’d seen the last of the 12 words, arranged into a circle on the screen. It’s been part of our worship for basically a year now, as we have journeyed through the seasons.

But perhaps it is surprising, when you call a series Encountering God in 12 words, that one word was missing. A word that was quite prominent, to say the least, in this morning’s reading. And that word is…

Love.

How can you talk for a year about encountering God in 12 Words, and not have as one of the words, love?

I mean God is love surely?

Yes, sure I have mentioned it most weeks, if not every week, but still…

 

Yet although we have not used it explicitly as one of our words, it’s the one which runs through all of them. As Brian McLaren puts it Love is ‘the seas toward which all the rivers run.’

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha and spoke of Loving God and Loving neighbour. I talked about the balance of activism and contemplation.

There was a young couple visiting with us that Sunday and when I got chatting with them after the service he challenged me on what I’d said. He argued that you couldn’t really have one without the other. You can’t say you love God and not love your neighbour.

And of course he was right. The Bible says ‘if you don’t love the neighbour whom you have seen, how can you say you love God whom you haven’t?

But love has been running through all 12 words.

Love begins with presence (Here).

Love adores (O).

Love appreciates (Thanks).

Love regrets everything that stands in the way of or damages love (Sorry).

Love sees need, in oneself or in others, and sees it as a chance to make a loving connection (Help and please).

When recovery meets resistance or sees delay, it becomes an occasion for a loving longing for release (When).

Love refuses to stand by whilst suffering continues (no!).

Love dares hope that some reason might be found, there might be some meaning to it all, even when it can’t make sense of what is happening (Why?)

In the end love looks out expectantly for signs of hope (Behold),

surrenders to the tender proposals of the beloved (Yes)

and ultimately finds it’s peace, stillness, and rest back in the presence of the beloved, a place where no words are necessary. Mere presence is enough.

As I concluded last week, God has been present through it all, and so each is an opportunity to be loved. To know God’s love.

If there is a message running through these words, it is that we are created in love, and made for love. You are loved.

Loved with a love that came to offer us not a new religion, but a true re-lig-ion.

Way back when I was preparing to begin this, I spoke of how the root of the word religion was the same root as the word ligament. The purpose of true religion is about binding us together, body, mind and spirit, to connect us to God and to each other. It’s brings wholeness to us and connects us to the divine. If your religion isn’t doing that, take it as a sign you’ve got it a bit wrong.

For the one true God is in the process of reconciling all things, renewing and things, re-creating all things.

In Love.

Loved with a love that is patient;

kind;

not envious

or boastful

or arrogant  

or rude.

You are loved with a love that does not coerce,

is not irritable or resentful;

that does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

Loved with a love that will stick with us through all things

always believing,

hoping

enduring.

That never gives up.

It never ends.

We encounter this love most fully in Jesus who embodied all those descriptions. You could swap every mention of love with the name of Jesus.

In Jesus you are loved with a love that is prepared to journey through the seasons, that does not rush us to it’s desired conclusion, but guides, nurtures and challenges us as we make the journey all the road.

 

And nowhere do we encounter the love with which we are loved more than when we come to this table, where we are invited to come just as we are. To eat a piece of broken bread and be reminded of a body which was broken that we might know healing. To drink a small glass of red liquid and remember blood that was shed that we might know life.

Loved with a love that did not wait for us to have it all together to love us, but came looking for us in Christ. A love that is there whatever our season.

So come to his table.

Eat.

Drink.

Remember.

Whoever you are.

And know that you are loved with a love that runs through all the seasons of life, and longs to make you whole.

Grace and peace

 

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Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: … Part 3

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Readings: Psalm 1; Matthew 13: 1-17

Recently I came across a story of a naturalist who was walking, with a friend, through the bustling streets of New York. Suddenly he stopped and said ‘listen, do you hear that cricket?’

His friend thought he was mad. How could he hear a tiny insect over all the commotion which surrounded them? How could anyone hear it?

But the naturalist said ‘we hear what we are trained to hear.’ Then, to illustrate his point, he said ‘watch this…’ and took out a quarter and dropped it on the pavement.

Instantly a crowd of people turned round.

 

Now I really don’t know how ‘true’ that story is, but even if it was made up, it does contain an important truth. For we do hear what we are trained to hear, or we notice what we are trained, or have trained ourselves to notice.

 

We rely on this in much of life. We go to a doctor, and we need them to notice what’s going on, what the combination of symptoms we’re describing could be. Or when we have an x-ray we need them to know what they’re looking for. They notice what they’ve been trained to notice.

When I used to work with statistics for a living, when a number didn’t make any sense, I learned by experience a few things to look for to help solve the problem. This made me generally quicker than others to find it.

On Monday I had a friend staying and I cooked a meal. As we were eating it he said to me ‘this is nice, is that paprika I taste?’ I was quite impressed. Turns out he’s been using it in quite a few things he’s cooked recently. I doubt I’d have been able to do that, if he had cooked for me.

Try listening to a piece of music with someone who really knows their stuff. They can pick out different instruments, even sometimes hidden deep within the piece, that many of the rest of us wouldn’t even spot. I’m sitting thinking what is she on about? Then they’ll say hear it is, it’s coming up now. Listen.

They notice what they are trained to notice.

They hear what they have learned to hear.

 

It’s perhaps a rarer thing than we think. This is an idea some of our supermarkets play on. The supermarket Aldi had a series of adverts which said ‘Like brands only cheaper.’ Their point was why pay more when people won’t notice the difference? You might even have even seen tests, they often have them with things like mince pies coming up to Christmas, in which a panel will be tested to see if they can spot the Fortnum and Mason mince pie from the supermarket own brand.

 

That idea of hearing what we are trained to hear, or noticing what we have learned to notice runs through the reading from Matthew that we had this morning.

We’re in the last of our 12 words, seasons, phases that make for a healthy spiritual life. Our final word is not really a word. It’s been symbolised with three dots. We’ve been considering the place of silence or stillness within the Christian tradition.

We’ve considered it from a couple of different angles.

One is when we are reduced to silence. When our words simple cannot do justice to what we’re describing. A couple of weeks ago I talked about Thomas Aquinas, saying for all the words he had written, and they were many and great, he was still only scratching the surface. He could never do God justice.

But we’ve also thought about the place of contemplative silence. That inner stillness, in which we can listen to God, and to ourselves.

 

I was at an event this week for Embrace the Middle East and I was sat next to a nun, sister Theodora. The main thing I noticed was how still she was. The seats we were sat on were clearly expensive, but not very comfortable. But she seemed not only to have this inner stillness, but it was as if it spread outward from her spirit to her body, even on really uncomfortable seats, she was able to be very physically still. Next to her, I became really conscious of just how much I was fidgeting all the time.

 

So in these last few weeks we’ve also been thinking about how silence and stillness form part of a healthy spirituality.

Today, as we turn, mainly to these words from Matthew’s Gospel, I want to finish our time considering these 12 words.

In today’s reading Jesus is teaching by a lake. A crowd is starting to gather round. So Jesus gets into a boat, pulls out a little from the shore, presumably creating a little more space to see and to be seen and heard.

Then he tells a story of a farmer who sows some seed. Some of the seed falls on a path and birds eat it. Some falls in rocky soil, which gets started, but then it gets a bit hot, the plant has no really root and it withers. Some falls on ground which is full of weeds, thorns, thistles and the like and it gets choked and comes to nothing. Other seed falls on good, well-prepared ground and produces a harvest. Some seeds are more fruitful than others. But there’s harvest nonetheless.

Then Jesus says something odd…

 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

The disciples come to him and say Jesus why are you teaching with parables?

For us that might seem an odd question.  2000 years on, one of the things Jesus is famous for is telling stories, which are called parables. But actually up until this point in Matthew’s Gospel that’s not how Jesus had taught. He uses the odd word picture, like wise and foolish builders or old and new wineskins, but even then he explains what he is talking about.

From this point things change. Here he just tells a story about a farmer who sows seeds which fall on different types of ground, with predictably mixed results. The end. No wonder the disciples ask Jesus why he has suddenly changed approach.

But Jesus answer is even odder. It sounds like he doesn’t want people to understand what he’s talking about. He says he does it so that

Though seeing they do not see

Though hearing they do not hear or understand

He then quotes from Isaiah, saying

You will indeed listen, but never understand,

and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull

and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”

 What’s going on here?

And what’s all this got to do with silence, stillness or whatever?

The background to this story is one of opposition and misunderstanding. Some writers note that we never read of Jesus teaching in a synagogue again from this point, suggesting he was no longer welcome there. That’s why Jesus is teaching from a boat on the shore.

Jesus is certainly facing opposition; from religious leaders, who think he in league with the devil; to his own family who think Jesus is going out of his mind. Even amongst the crowds who are being healed, there is very little engagement with what he is trying to tell them or show them. They make their demands and go when they’ve got what they want.

That’s when Jesus starts to speak in parables. But it’s not that Jesus does not want any of these people to hear and understand him. But a couple of things might stop them from doing so.

 

Jesus warns us that our hearts can grow dull, ears become hardened, eyes become blinkered, and we stop listening, we stop noticing. We stop expecting.

There is a certain amount of familiarity breeds contempt. I noticed this a bit this week. The Embrace the Middle East event I went to was in the Speaker’s Rooms in Parliament. You can tell the people who are used to those surroundings, from the rest of us. We were looking all round us, at the surroundings, blown away by it all. Others were more used it and barely looked around them at all. I suppose do it for a while, it just becomes normal, and you stop looking and noticing.

Perhaps we, more than those by the shore, can become like that with the teachings of Jesus. Oh, it’s the parable of the sower again. Heard that, know what it’s about, know what he’ll probably say.

Or perhaps, and this isn’t me passive-aggressively having a go, you listen to me, and you think Oh, there’s Andrews, he’s off again, talking about this, or I’m sure he’s told that story before. We assume we know what’s going to be said, so we stop listening.

And perhaps by that shore that day they were so caught up in their own thoughts, what they want, whether it’s religious leaders, looking for where Jesus is going to get it wrong,  crowds wondering how long he was going to be so they could bring him their problems, disciples even, they all their own preconceived ideas of what he is trying to tell them and to do, that no-one, or at least very few, are really listening to him.

It’s like they are blocking up their ears, or allowing their eyes to be blinkered and they’re not in a position to hear or to notice. They are not training themselves to hear or to notice.

Ever been in a conversation where one person assumes they know what the other is going to say, so they’re not really listening? I think if we’re really honest, we’ve all been on both side of that sometimes.

There’s a great story about Franklin D Roosevelt who would get really bored with receptions, where he shook hands with long lines of guests and exchange a few pleasantries. He was pretty sure no-one was really listening to him. So one day he decided to try a little experiment. As each guest arrived and shook his hand, he smiled and said in a calm, polite, pleasant voice ‘I murdered my grandmother this morning.’ One by one each guest shook his hand, each one responding something like ‘lovely’ or ‘marvellous’ or ‘keep up the good work.’ Right the way down to the end of the line where eventually a Bolivian ambassador said ‘Well, I’m sure she had it coming.’

They all had ears to hear, but only one was really listening.

Or perhaps cultivating stillness and silence is something of a lost art. Perhaps it is one we have never cultivated.  So we find it hard to really listen. Our generation has been described as amusing ourselves to death. As I’ve spoken about the last few weeks, we have surrounded ourselves with lots of different forms of distraction. Maybe we don’t hear, because we’ve lost the art of really listening, or perhaps we’ve never really cultivated it.

That’s the kind of listening to which Jesus calls us. But if we are ever to do that, we need that stillness, that silence, we’ve been speaking of these last few weeks.

 

Parables speak into this idea of silence, stillness, wordlessness in both the ways we have been speaking about. When, like Thomas Aquinas, we come to realise that for all our ideas and concepts, we can still not do something justice we turn to art, to poetry, to song, to story, to find ways to express what our words really struggle to convey.

Parables do that. They allow us to use our minds and imaginations in ways we wouldn’t otherwise.

But really they will only do their work if we stop and let them. If we take the time to not only hear the words that are said, but to truly listen to what is being spoken. To really pay attention.

That is the place for stillness and silence. To create the space for God to speak into in such a way as God might be heard. We’re giving our ears a chance to hear.

We’ll come to hear and to notice, what we’re trained to hear and to notice.

 

One of the things I have noticed is that when I have a few days away, or just doing something different, is that suddenly things I had been thinking about, ideas I have had, they pop into my head. All too often in the rushing around of daily life, they’ve not so much dropped out of my head, but they have got covered over by the immediate demands for my attention. It’s as I step away they get the chance to be heard once more.

That’s not something any of us can do constantly, but I can just create space to be still, to breathe, to stop and to listen.

To God, yes.

But also to my own life.

To notice what is driving me. Good and bad.

What are the things I really care about?

How are the experiences I am encountering affecting me?

What type of person am I becoming?

Do I like it?

Am I growing closer to God,

or drifting farther from him?

It doesn’t necessarily need to be long periods of time. Perhaps just a few minutes a couple of times a day, just to bring back that sense of perspective, to when you’re losing sight of what is important. Maybe to check in with God and remember that God with here with you in all things, that all of life is lived in God’s presence.

It’s a small, easily missed part of life.

But it’s so, so important.

 

It’s something that runs through both the readings this morning. The Psalmist tells us that it is the one who makes space to work out what God wants of them and for them and meditates on it, who is like the tree by springs of water, producing fruit in season.

In many ways the parable of the sower is like a parable about parables and the affects they have on those who hear them. For some it will just be a story, nothing more. They live at surface level and don’t think too hard about things. For others, the distraction will come when it gets a bit harder, or when other cares take over. It’s the one in whom it takes root that bears the fruit. They are the ones who have trained their ears to hear.

 

But it’s also a parable about how we approach life.

God is speaking to us all the time. Not necessarily in what we would recognise in an audible voice, but through circumstances, other people, chance comments, our own reactions to things.

Some of us live on the surface level and fail to notice.

Others might notice for a little while, then life takes over.

Some though really do notice and their relationship with God makes a difference to them. They are growing.

I’ve always resisted being too fatalistic about the ‘what type of soil are you?’ interpretations of the parable. My sense is that we’re all a bit of a mix, there are some parts of our lives in which God finds it easier to reach us than others.

But soil can be cultivated.

Ground can be prepared to receive the seed.

In moments of silence and stillness and meditation, we are preparing ourselves to receive what God wants to bring to us. When we learn to recognise God’s presence in the stillness, we start to notice his presence around us at other times. We find that he is waiting to meet with us, where we are, as we are. In this place, in this time.

 

We don’t need to be somewhere else. God is waiting to meet us here…

In fact as we grow we may notice he was there all along. It was sometimes he was easier to spot.

We may have noticed him in the season of O in the awe and the wonder.

We probably did notice him more in the season when were struck by his goodness towards us and driven to give him thanks.

He was there waiting to rescue us when we came to him in confession to say sorry.

He was waiting to catch us, when we realised we couldn’t do it on our own, and we called out to him for help.

He smiled when we were moved with compassion, and cried out please on behalf of another.

We may have got frustrated with his silence when we cried out ‘how long, O Lord!’ When?

When we refused to accept the world as it is and could only offer our No,

or when we cried out ‘why must it be this way.’

He was there as we turned the corner, spring began to emerge and we Behold, however tentatively signs of new life.

He waited for us to encounter him and issued the challenge to follow me, and waited for our Yes.

And he’s with us in the silence, when we realise that for all we’ve experienced on the journey, God is bigger and better than we can get our head around. And he’s there in the stillness and silence, waiting for us to recognise his presence once more.

Which brings us full circle.

Back where we started.

Here.

We don’t need to get somewhere else.

God is waiting to meet us Here.

He always has been.

All along.

So we’ve come full circle.

 

Except, hopefully, not quite.

No hopefully as we come around again, we have changed.

God hasn’t.

But we have.

By the grace of God may that change have been good. We have been changed by what we experienced on the path, and what we have learned on the road.

Although I’ve arranged the words in a circle, the aim of a healthy spiritual life is not simple to go round and round in circles, making the same mistakes over and over.

No, it is to grow. A healthy spiritual life is more of an upward spiral. I’ll spare you the dynamics. There will be stuff we need to leave behind, and stuff we will have learned on the way.  It’s like we’ve come back to where we started, but we’re not just older, but wiser, stronger.

It will be those who, along the way, have cultivated space for the stillness, who have learned to listen for the whisper of the Spirit, they will be the ones bearing fruit when the seasons come around again. For they have trained their ears to hear. They have learned to listen.

So may you,

In whatever season you find yourself

Whichever word best describes where you are right now

Find God waiting to meet with you.

May you come to realise that there is something to be found in each season.

Be it Here

O

Thanks

Sorry

Help

Please

When

No

Why

Behold

Yes

May you find stillness and silence into which the spirit can speak and your listen to your own life can speak.

May you bear the fruit of a healthy spirituality, a healthy relationship of trust with the God who loves you, the Christ who gave himself for you, and the Spirit who seeks to empower you and guide you.

May you know your life in held and enfolded in the love of the divine Trinity, whatever the time, wherever you are, and whatever the season.

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: … Part 2

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Reading: Luke 10: 25-42

Sometimes stories are very different, depending on where you start and finish them. I mean, consider Arsene Wenger’s time as manager of Arsenal. I’ve supported Arsenal for about 40 years and for over half that time Arsene has been our leader.

But that time has included two very distinct phases. In the early days it was brilliant. We won loads of trophies. We played lots of really good football. I had grown up supporting the boring, boring Arsenal, whose offside trap became a dance move in the film The Full Monty. So it was a really weird time. Wonderful. But weird. Then in 2004 Arsene’s team achieved something that nobody had managed for over 100 years and no-one has done since. They won the league without losing a single game. That team became known as The Invincibles.

But the second part of the story is a time of falling ever farther behind our rivals. There were any number of reasons why it happened. But we were making the same mistakes over and over again, they lacked any leadership on the pitch. The only consolation was for most of that time Tottenham were even worse. Then even they started to overtake us.

So, as he left, the question was: success or failure? Which was it?

The author and Arsenal fan Nick Hornby wrote recently about how his sons generation have no memory of that first period. Mostly what they remember was disappointment. Admittedly quite a few clubs whose fans would like to have suffered our level of disappointment. But it’s all relative.

But my generation remember the earlier days. Some of us also remember the dreadful football we endured before that too. We were probably that little bit sadder when it was time for him to go.

Success or failure? Which was he?

In many ways the answer is ‘Yes.’

But it depends which part of the story you emphasise, or perhaps where you stopped or started the story. That will shape the impression you have.

Sometimes when you read the Bible it is a bit like that. What message is it giving us? Well it depends where you pick up the story or where you stop.

We don’t tend to read great big blocks or whole books of the Bible in a single sitting. We pick up little chunks and focus on them.

Today our Bibles divide chapters into often smaller chunks with their own titles. The Bible wasn’t written like that. It didn’t have chapters, verses or even punctuation. Those were added later. Much later in the case of chapters and verses.

But how we read the rest of it can be influenced by those headings. They influence where we pick up the story and where we stop. And in turn that decision can also influence how you understand, interpret or apply what you have just read.

 

A classic case of this is the passage we have just read this morning.

We had two stories with which, if you grew up in church, or have been around churches a while, you may be familiar. The Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha. The term Good Samaritan is a well-known English phrase even amongst people who would not know where it came from. I also remember the story of Mary and Martha from my Sunday School class.

On the surface they seem quite different stories. Different settings, different feels… They could have been in different books or different parts of the Bible or all I knew. Until a few years ago I had never heard anyone speak on them together.

 

There is probably a very good reason for that. They seem to have contrasting meanings or morals. The hero in the Good Samaritan story is the activist. The one who gets his hands dirty, helping the guy who has been beaten up and left for dead. The bad guys are the priest the Levite. The moral is that faith needs to be practical. It says ‘get busy helping others.’

The story of Mary and Martha seems quite different. The one who is practical, trying to meet Jesus’ physical needs appears to be the one who gets it wrong in this case, and the one just sitting, taking it in, is the one who is the heroine. The lesson is ‘sit still and listen to Jesus.’

The moral of one appears to be ‘don’t be like the Priest and Levite. Be like the Samaritan.’

Which is fair enough. But in the Mary and Martha story, you Martha seems to be the one that’s most like the Samaritan, and Mary more like the Priest and Levite. Yet this time the supposedly more contemplative Mary emerges as the positive role model.

They’re two quite different stories, with different lessons to be drawn from them. Who should I be like? The activist Samaritan or the contemplative Mary? Well, the answer is Yes.

We like our answers a little clearer than that. So we deal with them separately.

Trouble is, I would argue that when we do that, we’re not being entirely faithful to either story. Because the two sit together in Luke’s Gospel.

And it may be that the two events simply happened one after the other.

But it’s more likely to have been deliberate.

They were meant to be seen and read together.

They go together.

There’s good reason within the text itself to suggest this is the case. Let’s go to the very start of our reading. A lot of our Gospels are taken up with stories about what happens when Jesus gets interrupted. This is the same.

One day Jesus appears to have been doing some teaching, when an expert in the law decides to test him. He says ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

Now in the church culture where I was raised we would have read things like that in the Bible and interpreted it as ‘how can I  get to heaven?’

That’s not what this expert meant. He was asking more about this life than the next one. He was asking ‘how can I live the kind of life God wants me to live, right now?’

Jesus effectively responds ‘you’re the law teacher, surely this is your area of expertise. What do you think?’

The teacher responds with a form of an ancient Jewish prayer known as The Shema.

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.’

‘Good answer’ says Jesus ‘Do that, and you’ll be living the kind of life you’re asking about. The rest will take care of itself.’

But the teacher is not satisfied with a good answer. He wants bonus points. So he asks a follow up ‘who is my neighbour?’ The Good Samaritan story then follows on from that.

It’s a great story and it deals well with the immediate question the teacher asked.

But it’s as if Luke recognises that it is only dealing with half of the greatest commandment. The loving your neighbour bit.

What about loving God?

And so he tells the story of the two women who open their house to Jesus. One gets into a flap about all the preparations that need to be made. The other just sits at Jesus’ feet. The one doing all the work eventually snaps at Jesus and tells him to get her sister to help, but Jesus says ‘she has chosen the better part. I’m not taking that away from her.’

The two stories sit side by side in our Bibles because although they seem very different, with different messages, in reality they are two sides of the same coin… loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving your neighbour as yourself.

Both are important.

Neither should be missed out.

 

I guess each of us is more drawn to one or other of the stories. Our choice probably something about the kind of person we are. Some of us are perhaps more activist by nature. We like to get busy. We feel compelled to help others, to make the world fairer, more just. It can take all sorts of forms. It might be really private, getting alongside a few people. No-one might ever know. It might be quite high profile social activism.

Others are more drawn to the contemplative life. That might be through scripture, prayer, stillness. We like to wrestle with truths, discuss ideas, understand things.

The first thing to say is that we need both kinds of people. We are a body, we are all different and there is no scope for one part to question the value of the other.

Activists may get frustrated about why those contemplative types don’t do something. More contemplative types can get frustrated by ill-judged or badly-thought-out activity.

I was involved in a discussion recently about another church, much more loosely organised than we are, who had a group, on the fringes of the church, who organised something which went badly wrong and a child got hurt. The question had been raised was the church responsible?

Some were saying ‘of course they are. They knew about the group, even given some implicit support to it, they should have made certain things were being done properly.’

Others got frustrated that the church was interfering in a group of friends, who were doing a great witness for Jesus. You’re bound up with all these rules and policies. We become so risk averse we never do anything.

Who was right?

Well in a sense both had a point.

We need both. Cos life is messy and complicated like that.

I think that’s why Luke tells these two stories together. If he had just told the Good Samaritan story, those with a more activist bent would have been able to point to this and say ‘see? Jesus says you should be more like us.’ If he had just told the Mary and Martha story, those of a more contemplative approach would have been able to say the same. By putting both together, Luke is saying ‘neither of you are better then the other. We need each other.’

But there is something else important. We don’t just need both types of people. No, it’s more important than that.

Each healthy, rounded human life needs both.  We need balance. It’s not enough to say I’m the activist, or I’m the contemplative, therefore I don’t need the other.

The balance between the two may vary. That probably depends as much on personality type as anything else.

But we do all need both.

 

And that’s why I am coming to this passage at this stage of the 12 Words. Last week we turned to our last word, or the word which wasn’t really a word. I characterised it with three dots. It’s about stillness and silence where we get the chance to hear God speak.

After last Sunday’s service, someone said to me that they love the whirr of machinery and the like. I’m fine with that. I’m aware that many of us live and/or work in environments where you won’t ever find physical silence. If being able to hear God required pure natural silence, most of wouldn’t have a hope.

But we can, as I talked about last week, with grace, practice, patience and a willing discipline, find inner stillness, which not only helps us respond better to what we encounter, but is also so much more healthy for us.

And for that there is a need to stop, to be still, to sit in the presence of God. We do need moments like Mary. Last week I talked about mindfulness and meditation as ways in which we can move closer to that kind of life in relationship with God.

 

Thing is, whether we tend to emphasise the loving God or loving neighbour side of the Shema or great commandment it has it’s good points, but each has its weaknesses. We encounter them in the two stories we shared from Luke’s Gospel.

We don’t know why the priest and the Levite walked by on the other side when they encountered the man who had been beaten up by the side of the road. The most common understanding is that by coming into contact with someone who was possibly dead, they would have become what first century Jews described as ritually unclean and unable to fulfil their religious duties. It’s probable that those listening to Jesus would not have been that surprised that the Priest or Levite acted that way. What would you expect? They had a job to do.

But if your religion is what stands in the way of helping others, you should perhaps take it as a sign you’re doing it wrong.

On the spiritual Direction course I have been doing recently, I have just written a paper on what we can learn from Benedictine Spirituality. It would probably be fair to say they are very much in the contemplative tradition. Their whole day I built around 7 set periods of prayer. Much of the rest of the time is devoted to study. Their day is based around the idea that all of life is lived in the presence of God. When the bell chimes for prayer you drop everything and go to prayer. Nothing is to be preferred to that.

But at the same time welcome and hospitality is a key virtue. If someone turns up unannounced they are not to be turned away because it’s the prayer time. The abbot (and others) will welcome them.

Again it’s about finding that healthy balance.

 

One of the problems of advocating faith approaches involving things like mindfulness, meditation and the like, is that it can risk being self-absorbed and all about my relationship with Jesus. I understand that. A few years ago I’d have probably viewed it in the same way.

When we do seek to develop a sense of inner silence, there may be times when those of us who tend towards beating ourselves up need to be reminded how much we are loved.

But there will also be times when that voice is the voice of challenge, pointing us towards others who need us. If we don’t hear that, I’d suggest our hearing has got selective.

 

Becoming aware of ourselves, can and should mean becoming aware of our own vulnerability. And if we do that it can help us understand others’ vulnerability. That is what the Samaritan got right. I’m pretty sure all three of the blokes who walked down that Jericho Road after the man got beaten up had the same thought. ‘That could have been me!’ But one had the awareness to ask ‘how would I want me to react right now?’

But the activist too has a weakness. They can have the burden of self-expectation. Words like ‘ought’, ‘should’ and ‘must’ become like little tyrants to them. They can sometimes project the demands they make of themselves onto others. To a certain extent that was what Martha was doing. The way the story reads Martha was just trying to be the good hostess. But she turned the expectations she placed on herself, into the expectations Jesus had placed on her. I don’t read anywhere that Jesus had made and demands on her. They were friends.

 

Some of us are miserable because we are carrying around burdens we were never asked to bear.

Some of us are trying to be square pegs in round holes.

Yes, there are times when circumstances force us into that situation for a time.

But there is then the time for listening to the voice of the Spirit, reminding us who we are. And calling us to live out of who we are. To be the person God called us to be.

There is a saying in Hasidic Judaism which makes this point. It is from the rabbi Zusya, who lived in the 18th Century. When he was an old man he said ‘In the coming world they will not ask me ‘why were you not Moses’? They will ask me ‘why were you not Zusya.’

Contemplation without activism can lead to us avoiding the needs of others, whilst all the while thinking we’re being good. But activism without contemplation can lead to all sorts of problems. We over-commit meaning we get involved in a whole load of stuff which really isn’t us, our heart really isn’t in it. I’m not saying it isn’t good and valuable. But it sucks away the energy you need for what really matters to you. That’s a recipe for exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, disillusionment.

It’s when we make space for stillness, to listen, to God, and to our own lives, we become more aware of what really matters. We’re reminded of who we really are. Amongst other things that’s reminding us of what we have learned from our journey’s through the seasons. Most importantly we are reminded what we said Yes to. It’s like that scene with Peter on the shore which I talked about a few weeks ago, where Jesus is saying ‘don’t you worry about other people. This is the life I’ve called you to live. Follow me’

More like the Good Samaritan or Mary? The answer is Yes.

It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and.

It’s as we find the balance between them that we become more truly who we are. We’re living out of the resources God has placed within us.

That is the way to a healthier spiritual life.

It’s simply the way to a healthier life.

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: … Part 1

be still

Reading: Psalm 62

Thomas Aquinas was an Italian priest and Dominican Friar, who lived in the 13th Century. He’s also one of the most influential theological thinkers of the last 2000 years. Even 7-800 years after he lived a lot of modern theology is indebted to him.

His most famous writing was called Summa Theologica, in which he tried to summarise the results of his life’s work. It’s been described as one of the classics of the history of philosophy and one of the most influential works of Western literature.

And there was plenty of it. It runs to some 3,500 pages. Apparently if you read at an average pace of 250 words a minute, it would take 61 hours and 24 minutes to read.

Fact for the day.

That’s a lot of words.

But on 6 December 1273 something happened to Thomas Aquinas which changed everything for him. He had some kind of religious experience during the mass. We can’t be sure what it was, but it had a profound effect. For afterwards he said now such things have been revealed to me that all I have written to me seems so much straw.

And from that day on, despite the protests of others, Aquinas went silent and wrote no more. So, when he died, in March 1274, his greatest work (remember 3,500 pages) was still unfinished.

What did Aquinas mean when he compared his work with straw? Basically today we might say he considered it ‘lightweight.’ He was only ‘skimming the surface.’ He realised that all his words, wisdom, intelligence, and genius, could not do justice to what he had seen.

No words could.

It reduced him to silence.

It might not be an especially religious experience, but perhaps you too have had some kind of experiences, and you’ve tried to describe it, but you realise no words can ever really fully capture it, describe it, explain it.

I’m reminded of the story, probably apocryphal, of a philosophy student at St Andrews who sat a three hour exam, with a single question… what is courage? I mean how do you answer that. Well, one student returned an answer book which was entirely blank, save for two words. ‘This is’

But try to describe that glorious sunset you saw on your last holiday. Or describe the smell of freshly ground coffee? There is a time when words fail us. When we think, what words can do it justice?

The same is true of a spiritual experience, or an encounter with the divine. There is a place for words. I’m using plenty right now. It is good to seek to explain and explore. But in the end we have to accept that words just aren’t going to be enough to properly describe it.

There is a place for silence.

We’ve been working through these various seasons, phases, or stages of the spiritual life. We’ve assigned each phase a word. Today we turn to the last one. Well, I say word. In fact this last one is not really a word at all.

I’ve just given it three dots. But over the next few I’m thinking of stillness, or silence.

Which I have to admit is a bit odd…

…speaking about silence!

When I mentioned it on Facebook last weekend, one of my friends said ‘this sermon on silence. You gonna talk much?’

I have to admit I was tempted to stand here for 20 minutes and see how you reacted. I decided that you’d just think I hadn’t done any prep!

Believe it or not, there is a piece of music, by the American composer called John Cage. It’s called 4’33’’. It comes in three movements, but it is effectively complete silence. Look it up on youtube. You can see it performed.

 

But over the last few weeks of this series, it’s that idea of silence, or stillness I want to think about. It was the main theme of the Psalm we shared together. In the church Bibles, the Psalm opens with the lines

            For God alone my soul waits in silence

            From him comes my salvation

 

Silence is an important part of many religious traditions, within the Christian faith, amongst people of other faiths…

Even beyond faith traditions, the health benefits of silence are widely recognised. It’s been said to

improve memory,

stimulate brain growth,

reduce stress,

fight insomnia,

heighten sensitivity.

 

We live in a noisy world. And it’s got a lot noisier in the last half century or so. There’s a guy called Bernie Krause who records nature sounds for film and TV. He says that 40 years ago if you wanted to get one hour of pure, natural sound, undisturbed by any human-created noises like planes or cars, he would have needed to record for about 15 hours. Today to get that same 1 hour of undisturbed sound he needs to record for 2000 hours.

12 full weeks.

It’s like we feel the need to surround ourselves with noise all the time. I think the first time this really struck me was a few years back when Julie and I went to see the Table Tennis during the London Olympics. Every spare second was just filled with noise. And I don’t just mean background noise. Loud, blasting noise. God forbid you might want to just sit quietly, or discuss what you’d just watched with the person you came with.

We’re surrounded with noise from the alarm clock which wakes you in the morning, pretty much until we got to bed at night. Not just audible noise. Visual noise. A sports star can’t do an interview against a blank wall these days. It’s against a wall of company logos. When Rafa Nadal wins the French Open today (and I don’t think I need to be a prophet to predict he will) when he is presented with the trophy, he will suddenly be wearing a watch he wasn’t before. And it’s not so he can be sure he’s back in the locker room for the start of the new series of Poldark. It’s advertising. It’s visual noise.

Last weekend I became aware in a new way how we surround ourselves with noise. In our hotel in Belfast, it was the first time I’d seen this, there was a TV in the bathroom!

Of course, not all silence is good. Perhaps you are waiting for some news from a doctor, or about a job interview. And you’re looking at the phone saying ‘oh, come on, ring….’ That silence can be torture. Or silence can be used to punish you. Someone can give you the ‘silent treatment.’ Ever found yourself in a room where two people aren’t talking to one another and even without either of them saying a single word you can feel that tension. Or maybe sometimes you’re with someone and the conversation has dried up and you are desperately trying to

think of something to say. It’s uncomfortable. That’s not a good silence.

But there is another kind of silence. A kind of companionable silence. Silence can be a very intimate thing. It is the mark of a good, healthy relationship when you can sit with someone and be comfortable with one another without the need of words. If you always lived like that, I wouldn’t say it is a good thing. But you can just be relaxed in one another’s company.

Our relationship with God can be like that. Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life and she said ‘mostly, I listen.’ When she was then asked what God said to her she said ‘oh, mostly he listens.’

Prayer is good, but often we think of prayer as being about what was say to God. But we can also have that relationship with God where were are able to simply sit in stillness, in silence. That’s the kind of relationship with God that the Psalm is talking about.

But there is another dimension to silence, or stillness. You see to a certain extent we can’t do much about living in a noisy world. There are some things we can control. I have a choice whether I put the headphones on and listen to music as I walk to the office or not. But there is still going to be drilling, traffic etc.

But you know you could get yourself into an environment where there is complete silence, you could get away from it all, and you will still have the noise and the chatter in your own head. Just try sitting in stillness for a few minutes (we will a little later). You’ll be amazed at how many thoughts whizz through your mind. Did I turn the oven off? Mustn’t forget so-and-sos birthday. We’re out of washing powder, must add that to the shopping list… Then there is the unhealthy thoughts. The negative messages we feed ourselves. I’m rubbish, I’m stupid, I’m ugly. The noise we long to escape is not just out there. It’s in here.

Perhaps the internal noise is even more dangerous than the external. For as Frederick Buechener puts it ‘what deadens us most to God’s presence within us, is the inner dialogue we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought.

The kind of stillness, the Psalm is speaking of is not an absence of noise out there. All sorts is happening around him. People attacking him, people saying one thing to his face, another behind his back, people enjoying a good gossip about him, without checking whether the facts are true.

But the Psalmist has found an inner stillness, an inner strength, not because of how laid back he is, or because of the kind of person he is, but rooted in a relationship with God. He has a part to play in it, but it is based on his experience and his relationship with God.

But even if we recognise the benefits of silence, it is not something we find easy. And that inner stillness can be the hardest to find.  This is not an entirely new phenomenon. The philosopher Blaise Pascal, as far back as the 1600s, said ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

I came across an example of this in a book called Silence in an Age of Noise, by Scandinavian explorer Erling Kagge. He speaks of an experiment conducted by the universities of Virginia and Harvard, where individuals ranging from teenagers, up to the age of 77, were left alone in a room, for between 6 and 15 minutes, without music, reading material, the chance to write, or their smartphones. Most found it uncomfortable. Some were allowed to take the test at home. Many of them admitted later that they had cut the experiment short.

Then they took it a step further. They placed a button in the room, which, if they pressed it would administer a painful electric shock. Each participant was given the shock before the test so they knew how painful it would be. Yet nearly half of the participants still pressed it to break up the silent time. The researchers concluded that being alone with ones thoughts was apparently so terrible people were prepared to effectively torture themselves, to avoid it. One participant pressed the button 190 times!

It’s been said that silence in the canvas on which music is painted. From the perspective of the writer of Psalm 62 inner silence or stillness is the foundation on which is life is built. The Psalmist makes space for that inner silence and lives his life out of that.

 

But there are a couple of things I want to draw out of the Psalm. One is that we might find ourselves thinking ‘yeh, but we’ve got to live in the real world.

There is a brutal realism to the Psalmist. He is aware of all that is happening. We may not be entirely sure what circumstances he was facing. Some think it might be weakness, some people think it is simply advancing age. He is well aware of his circumstances. And he sees them realistically.

And it’s his inner stillness that provides the foundation from which to face it. It helps to keep his God and his circumstances in perspective. It is because he trusts in God that his foundations won’t be shaken.

If he was writing this today we would speak of him practising mindfulness. All too often we live reactively to circumstances and we don’t take time to stop, to breath, to reflect and when we do that we get stuff out of perspective. As yourself this, have you ever looked back on something that really had you worried, then wondered why you worried about it? You’ve got it out of perspective.

The Psalmist response to that would be to find that place of inner stillness and silence and allow that to be the base from which he lives his life. Yes, he can see what is going on, and it does matter to him and he can see some of the attractiveness and temptation of how others would react to what he is facing.

But he also has his knowledge of God, his power, his unfailing love, and justice and that is what helps him keep it in perspective. It helps him gather himself in trust before God.

We can fall into the trap of thinking well that’s just the kind of chilled out guy he is. But that’s not the message of the Psalm. There is a single, tiny Hebrew word that appears at the start of 6 of the first 9 verses. It’s there in  verse 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9. It is אַךְ (ak).

I suppose the closest meaning we have for this is ‘surely’. The idea is that this is not something which just comes naturally to him. It is not his immediate instinctive reaction to life. It is learned through experience, sometimes bitter and difficult.

In a sense this word … silence, or stillness, it can feel very similar to the seasons of closeness with which I opened the series, of Here or O. That’s why the words are not just arranged in a sequence. It’s not because I could most easily fit them onto a screen. We are in a way coming full circle.

We are returning to that awareness of the presence of God. But this is not the simple, first flush of faith closeness. This is faith which has been around the block, has been through the seasons, perhaps several times. Who has been through all those difficult, dark seasons, yet has found that when he has stuck with God, God has brought him through it. It might not necessarily have worked out how he thought it would, how he thought it should, but God brought him through it.

So it’s like he starts Be silent my soul and wait for God. But all this other stuff floods in. But then we get a second, Be silent my soul and wait for God. It’s like he is telling himself ‘woah, woah, woah, calm down. And from there he starts to list all the things that God is to him. Hope, rock, salvation, fortress, deliverance, honour, mighty rock, refuge. The stillness emerges from a period of wrestling in his soul.

The truth is cultivating inner stillness isn’t easy.

But it is possible.

It takes practice.

It takes training.

Some days are better than others.

But with a little practice you will notice the difference. I notice it in my life. And I notice it when it gets out of kilter.

I’m not saying you will become a complete model of serenity. I don’t think the person who wrote Psalm 62 was. But if we do seek to cultivate it, we create the space into which God can speak to our hearts. It’s not, despite what some people might think, something that takes hours and hours. But perhaps two three minutes, a couple of times during the day, where you stop, still yourself, notice your breathing. You will find yourself slowly connecting with the still centre which is in each of us.

There is a time for words in prayer. We are invited to pour out our hearts to him, to cast all our cares on him. But there is also a time to just leave it with God. To sit in his presence. To allow him to speak into what you’ve brought him, not with answers, but with perhaps an awareness of who your God is. To bring him what you’ve got, but to acknowledge that the God revealed in Jesus is greater than that. And the God revealed in Jesus has committed himself to you. And allow him to create that inner silence, that still centre within you from which to live.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Yes! Part 3

003-gnpi-105-peter-restored

Reading: John 21: 1-22

During the 1930s the songwriter Eric Maschwitz spent some time in Hollywood. There he became romantically involved with the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. But the relationship did not last. Mainly because he returned to Britain.

Maschwitz longed to be with her.  Everything, however small, seemed to remind him of her. A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces; an airline ticket to romantic places…

He couldn’t shake off his longing. Memories of their time together lingered, like a ghost clinging to him, refusing to let go. From that we got a really great song These Foolish Things. 

As we continue our time in these 12 words, describing different stages, seasons, phases of the spiritual life, we’ve been considering the word Yes. In some ways it might be a surprise that Yes comes so late in the series. Surely faith journeys begin with our Yes to God and his Yes to us.

But there is a deeper Yes that comes from experience.

When you’ve been battered by the storms of life.

When your faith has been tested.

And yet you have hung on in there.

That might be because you found yourself thinking ‘where else can I go?’ But you held on.

When you say Yes in that situation, it’s different.

 

Or maybe you didn’t.

Maybe you got it wrong.

You messed up.

You made a wrong choice.

Maybe you did leave it behind.

Maybe it stopped making sense.

Or maybe you thought it was just way too hard.

Maybe you think God has given up on you.

 

Maybe you thought you had left it behind, but somehow it never quite left you. For much of my 20s I had very little to do with church or faith. In one sense I had left it behind, but it was still part of me, who I was. It came out mainly in things like my sense of justice. I developed a fascination with the Historical Jesus. Part of it still clung to me. Perhaps the way Biblical writers put it, it was like seeds that had taken root.

Maybe you tried to follow and got a lost on the way.

Well the invitation to come and follow is still open.

You can still offer your Yes.

 

That’s what is happening in this morning’s Bible reading from John 21. It’s set sometime after the resurrection of Jesus, in the 40 days before the Ascension. We’re not quite sure when. The scene has shifted from Jerusalem in John 20, back to Galilee in chapter 21. 7 of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, James, John, Thomas, Nathanael and a couple of others who aren’t named are together. Peter decides he’s going to go fishing and the others say ‘we’ll go with you.’

Peter has messed up.

Perhaps he’s wondered if there is any future in the whole ‘following Jesus’ thing.

Perhaps he’s already made his decision and that’s why he’s back in the boat.

He thinks he’s leaving it behind, but it’s not really gone. The ghost of that life he had as a close disciple of Jesus still clings.

This story is full of what Maschwitz would describe as foolish things. Reminders of that time. Good and bad.

Yes, the good times are there, stretching right back to the very beginning. John 21 is almost a carbon copy of the beginnings of Peter’s journey. Peter and Andrew, James and John had fished all night and caught nothing. Then Jesus came along and said ‘go on, give it one more go.’ Perhaps against their better judgement they did.  On both occasions the result was a bumper catch.

But that’s not all that’s in here. The events take place at Tiberias, where Jesus took the disciples to be alone with him.  It was also the scene of another meal; the feeding of the 5000.

It was also the where Jesus had appeared to them once before and was not instantly recognised; when he came walking to them on the water.

 

Peter’s relationship with Jesus had been through it’s ups and downs. But tragedy had struck. Judas had betrayed Jesus and handed him over to the religious authorities. Jesus had been tried and sentenced by both Jewish authorities and Rome and he’d been crucified.

Today we know the end of the story. We have the benefit of the insights of 2000 years and can see meaning in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The disciples had none of that that. When Jesus died nobody thought ‘its ok. He’s the Messiah. It’ll be alright, he’ll be back in a few days.’

From their perspective Jesus had been killed in a humiliating fashion by the Romans. They’d backed the wrong horse. For the disciples who had thrown their lot in with this man for the past three years this loss was devastating.

 

For Peter, the man who had been so close to Jesus over those three years it was doubly so. Along with James and John, Peter was there at all the key moments, and even amongst those three a quick glance at the Gospels suggest he was a ‘first among equals.’

 

Peter had originally been called Simon, but Jesus had given him the nickname Peter, meaning rock. Jesus had said that on this rock he would build his church. Peter was the first to openly declare who he thought Jesus was.

When Jesus began to talk of what would happen to him, how he would get to Jerusalem, be betrayed and killed Peter declared he would not allow it. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, at a meal, as Jesus broke bread, Peter boldly announced that he would follow Jesus wherever it took him, even if it cost him his life. He swore that even if all the others deserted Jesus, he would not. Jesus warned him that before sunrise, when the cock crowed, Peter would deny three times that he even knew Jesus.

 

Peter was determined to prove his point. Maybe that’s why when they came to arrest Jesus, Peter’s first instinct was to resort to violence. He pulled out a sword and cut off the ear of a guy called Malchus, a servant of the High Priest. But instead of being grateful for his efforts, Jesus rebuked Peter, and healed Malchus. Peter was powerless as Jesus was arrested.

Whilst it appears the other disciples fled as Jesus was arrested, Peter did follow, but at a distance. He went with John and because John appears to have known the High Priest, he managed to get into the High Priest’s courtyard as the trial progressed.

But from here on Peter ceases to be quite so rock-like and becomes quite rocky.

In the courtyard a servant girl challenged Peter saying You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too are you?

Peter replied I am not! 

He took his place around a charcoal fire. Across the courtyard, he probably would have seen  one of the High Priest’s officials slapping Jesus across the face.

Again someone asked Are you sure you’re not one of his disciples. 

No, I’m NOT! argued Peter once more.

But someone else said I’m pretty sure I saw you with him in the garden

And again, by the fire, Peter denied even knowing Jesus.

Then the cock crowed, and Peter realised what he had done.

The disciple who said he would stick with Jesus to the bitter end denied he even knew the man.

Three times

.As the cock crowed the light dawned on Peter. Hours earlier Jesus had told him this would happen and Peter had said ‘No way.’

But it had happened.

Peter tried to live up to his promises and failed.

He has given his Yes, but not lived up to it.

We’re told he went out and wept bitterly.

Perhaps that was the moment when Peter stopped believing in himself as much as anything. His Yes hadn’t been worth much. He had crumbled under pressure.

There’s a telling comment made in Mark’s Gospel by the empty tomb. The women go to the tomb, but they do not find Jesus’ body. They do see a young man who says Don’t be alarmed. You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. Well, he’s not here, he is risen. Look this is where his body was.

Then he adds Go tell his disciples…

…and Peter.

Was Peter already counting himself out of their number?

Had Peter already given up, even then?

Up until this moment we’re not aware of any words shared between Peter and Jesus, after the resurrection. Mary met Jesus in the garden. The two on the Emmaus Road who had all but given up, met with Jesus. Thomas who simply refused to accept that Jesus was alive had his doubts quelled. But thus far, it seems Jesus had no words for his ‘right hand man.’ Maybe Peter thinks that’s it. He’d messed up. He was beyond forgiveness.

And that’s how he finds himself out on the boat.

He thought he was leaving it behind.

Yet the memory of what had happened still lingered.

All of it.

Perhaps he longed for a chance to reaffirm his love and commitment to his Master. And that love and commitment had been there. Even under the denials lay a devotion which had gone farther than most of the others. He almost stuck it out to the end.

 

We may judge the Peter of the gospels harshly, but perhaps we should have more sympathy for him. Yes, he made mistakes, but at least he put himself in the position where he could make those mistakes. That fateful evening Peter was the one of very few who got close enough to be recognised as Jesus’ disciple. The rest of them were nowhere to be seen.

And so, out on the sea of Galilee they toil all night and catch nothing. Then a stranger on the shore says ‘try casting the net out on the other side. And to their amazement a huge catch came in. So big, someone decided we really need to count just how big this is. There’s always one. It’s normally me.

153 fish.

Then one of their number says ‘It’s the Lord!’

 

And suddenly, at that moment, do new possibilities emerge for Peter?

He wraps his coat around himself and sets off into the water. Perhaps at one stage he had been thinking of returning to fishing. That opportunity was being held out to him. The bumper catch would be a good starting point.

But Peter is not thinking about the catch. He wants another life. I wonder if the other 6 were thinking ‘great, it was his idea to come out here fishing, then leaves us to drag the thing in!’

 

But if the huge catch of fish had brought back memories of happier times, on the shore it was different. There he encounters the flickering light, the hiss and crackle and the distinctive, acrid smell of a charcoal fire.

Do the memories come flooding back of the last time he’d been at one of these… in the High Priest’s courtyard?

Does he remember the denials?

Does he begin the doubt whether that new future, that new chance to give his Yes is possible?

 

Well,  Jesus doesn’t turn him away. Together with all seven of the disciples who had been there that evening, he shares breakfast. Another meal. Another glimpse of their past together. A mixed message. There had been the feeding of the 5000. But there had also been a last meal when Peter had made the boasted and given a Yes for which he wasn’t ready.

Then, when they’ve finished eating, he turns to Peter and says ‘Simon, son of John…

 

Simon, not Peter. Jesus too is retracing their relationship. This is exactly how Jesus referred to Peter when he first called him.

Is it because Peter feels no longer worthy to be called the rock?

Is Jesus just reaffirming him as the man he had first called?

Simon, son of John Do you love me more than these?

More than what?

 

Does Jesus point at the nets, the boats, the bumper catch? Is he saying ‘you left them once before – will you do it again?’  Does he point to the others and say ‘you once said your love for me went farther than the others – still think that?’  Either way Jesus is offering him the chance to reaffirm his love commitment. To give his Yes once more.

The last time Peter had warmed himself by a charcoal fire, his love and commitment had failed him three times. Here by the another charcoal fire he is offered three chances to reaffirm that love and commitment.

As Peter reaffirms his commitment to Jesus, Jesus reaffirms his commitment to Peter.

 

It’s painful to Peter. Why does Jesus have to ask him 3 times?

Maybe Peter does have to face up to his past.

To name, to acknowledge that he had messed up.

To own it.

It’s part of him and his story.

The past is past. It cannot be undone.

But it needn’t be his destiny.  Because of what Jesus went through and overcame in resurrection Peter’s own failure can be dealt with.

Here he is offered an opportunity to offer his Yes.

Not the Yes of the early days.

Not even the Yes of the upper room.

The Yes of one who has passed through the autumn and winter of faith. Who has been through the joys and sorrows, the highs and the lows, known successes and failures, victories and defeats, but still comes back to offer his Yes.

Perhaps this is where we expect the happy ending.

But that’s not where the curtain falls.

Instead, before Jesus issues his final invitation, he offers Peter a glimpse of what is to come.  Peter had been a man of action. Sometimes overly so. He acted without thinking. He had been a man who liked to have control of his destiny.

His future with Jesus will have many great moments. But the glimpse Jesus offers is that if he says Yes, there will come a time when he is older he will be led to where he does not want to go. John tells us this was about how Peter himself would become a martyr.  In the upper room he had made the boast that he was prepared to die for Jesus. In Jerusalem he had failed that test.  But Jesus tells him there would come a time when he would live up to that boast.

Then Jesus says Follow me.

Peter is invited to offer his Yes.

Will he offer it, knowing that it will mean confronting his failures and fears?

This could also be the happy ending if he just says Yes.

But that’s not what happens.

It’s as if one last time Peter seemed destined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

For instead he looks around  and asks‘what about him?’

He’s talking about the one whom the writer of John keeps referring to as the disciple Jesus loved.

It’s like Peter is saying ‘is it just me who has to go through this, or is he going to get special treatment?’

And Jesus effectively says That is none of your business. You must follow me.

Peter is offered another chance to give his Yes.

And sure, we can read this story in the light of Pentecost and the book of Acts.

But as John leaves us the invitation is left hanging.

Peter does not give his answer.

We turn the page not knowing how he responds.

Of course that’s deliberate.

For those words are not just spoken to Peter.  We’re invited to place ourselves by the shore and be challenged by the invitation come, follow me.

We know our own stories. The times we’ve started and failed. The stuff we’ve got right, and the stuff we’ve made a mess of. Our foolish boasts, our false starts, our failures, our relapses. But the challenge and invitation comes to us. Will we offer our Yes?

It’s a challenge that comes to us daily. Following is a dynamic thing. Discipleship is not just a decision. It’s an ongoing choice.

Most of us won’t be asked to die as martyrs, but the road ahead is not marked with guarantees. Yes, there will be summer moments when we are aware of God’s presence, wowed by what we witness and are aware of his gifts.

But we will also pass through the autumn, struggle with our weakness, need help and see pain of others.

We’ll have winter seasons when we cry out how long? when we refuse to accept that this is how it should be and will be or cry out why?

There will be times when we start to see new life… and all of it is part of the journey of the discipleship, will we say Yes to all of it?

 

Maybe you’ve said Yes in the past but struggled to live up to it. We may struggle to accept the grace and forgiveness God wants to bring to us. Our forgiveness can be grudging, on the basis of ‘better not do that again.’ God’s isn’t.

The writer Brennan Manning was a man who struggled in his faith and passed through the seasons. But in his book the Ragamuffin Gospel he writes [Failure] is the cross we never expected and the one we find hardest to bear. But one morning at prayer, I heard this word ‘Little brother, I witnessed a Peter who claimed that he did not know Me, a James who wanted power in return for service to the kingdom, a Philip who failed to see the Father in Me, and scores of disciples who were convinced I was finished on Calvary. The New Testament has many examples of men and women who started out well and then faltered along the way. Yet on Easter night I appeared to Peter.  James is not remembered for his ambition but for the sacrifice of his life for Me.  Philip did see the Father in Me when I pointed the way, and the disciples who despaired had enough courage to recognize Me when we broke bread at the end of the road to Emmaus.  My point, little brother, is this: I expect more failure from you than you expect from yourself.”

 

I’m reminded of that great source of theological wisdom that is Bargain Hunt. Every now and then a couple will take along an item, for which they’ve paid, say, £100. The auctioneer starts by asking for a hundred. Deathly silence. She goes down to 80, 50, still no one seems interested.

The contestants are downhearted. They loved that item. They’d have taken it home if they could. But nobody else seems to like it.  Down she goes to 30, when perhaps finally there is a bid. Then the price slowly starts to rise.

At this point, the presenter occasionally says something which is designed to encourage them. They might say something like

‘it’s not where it starts that matters. It’s where it finishes!’

That’s true of following Jesus. It’s not where you’ve started, or where you’ve been,what diversions you have taken on the road.  It’s where we end up that matters. The invitation is still open. Will we offer our Yes?

I’ll leave you with a short section from a reflection by Adrian Plass. He is talking about the passage at the end of the Sermon on the Mount…

Jesus, could I ask you something

Anything

You know that bit about the little gate and the narrow road and there being only a few that find it?

Yes, I think I know the bit.

Well, it frightens me.

 I can understand that… Is there something in particular you wanted to ask?

You don’t mind?

I never mind questions. Do you mind answers?

I don’t know yet. It’s just what is the narrow gate? what is the narrow road? and, well, am I one of the few?

Ok…  Well my answer to all three questions is a question. If I got up now and walked away without telling you where I was going, or whether I’d be coming back, what I’d be doing, or how it would all end, would you take my hand and come with me?

 

 

We stand with Peter at the end of Gospel. Jesus issues the invitation Come, follow me.

We’re invited to offer our Yes.

The page is turning and the ending is open…

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Yes Part 2

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Reading: Genesis 11: 1-9Acts 2: 1-8; 12-21

This morning I want to begin with a quick quiz. I want to see how much you’ve been affected by the great ‘evils’ of marketing and advertising.

A number of companies are instantly recognisable without even using their name. It might be the Golden Arches of McDonalds or the Nike swish.

Other companies are quickly recognised because of a slogan. Some of these slogans are so good that the company have been using them far longer than we realise. Or at least, I realised. In a world which everything else changes so fast, that really says something.

I will give you an advertising slogan. Let’s see is you can guess the company.

Have a break, have a… Kit-Kat. They’ve been using that slogan for more than 60 years. Since 1957 in fact.

Beanz Meanz… Heinz. Another one that’s been around for longer than I have. Since 1967.

Does Exactly What It Says on the Tin… Ronseal. That’s been around since 1994.

Once You Pop, You Can’t Stop… That’s Pringles crisps. A bit more recent.

Snap! Crackle and Pop!… Rice Krispies. Anyone want to have a guess at when they first used that slogan? 1932

Because You’re Worth It… ‘L’Oreal’ This was originally ‘Because I’m worth it. But was later changed. I was surprised to find they’ve been using it since 1973!

Some surprised me.

Anyone want to know who described themselves as Fair and Balanced? Fox News! If they got a way with that, things must have changed a lot since 1995.

 

Some slogans remain famous long after the companies have gone. Back in the 1980s both my sisters worked for companies with really recognisable slogans. One no longer exists one disappeared for a while, but in recent years has come back.

One sister worked for a company which claimed ‘we won’t make a drama out of a crisis.’ Anyone tell me what it was… Commercial Union.

The other worked for TSB. What did they like to be known as… The Bank That Likes to Say Yes! This was an age before banks trashed the economy by throwing money at people who could never repay it. People would dread going to see the bank manager. Being the bank that liked to say ‘Yes’ was a bit of a selling point.

We’re continuing in our series of seasons, phases or stages we experience when we seek to live in a relationship with God. Each stage was assigned a word, and the word we started last week was Yes!  Last week the emphasis was on our saying Yes! to God. We saw Jesus invite the disciples to join him, in his ongoing work of rescuing, redeeming, reconciling the world and how he needed their Yes! There was no Plan B.

This morning I want to approach this word from a slightly different angle.

What is our God like?

Does God likes to say Yes!?

 

Jesus seems to think so. He says God delights to give us good gifts. He says things like he has come that we might have abundant life.

Ephesians talks about a God who blesses us with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

But do we really believe that?

What is our picture of God?

What’s your picture of God?

Do you have a God who likes to say Yes!?

Not everyone thinks so. Last week I mentioned the Vicar of Dibley scene, where they’re discussing whether the word can’t is in the Christian vocabulary.

Steve Chalke tells a similar story of an interview he once had on BBC Radio in a programme about adultery. The presenter was complaining about God being miserable and down on everything we do. ‘It’s all don’t do this, don’t do that. Don’t commit adultery. It’s pathetic!’

‘Where does the Bible say don’t commit adultery?’ asked Steve Chalke.  ‘I’ve never read that bit.’

‘You know fine well it’s there,’ came the response. ‘It’s one of the Ten Commandments.’

‘Oh right. Now I know what you’re talking about. I didn’t recognise it as first because of the tone of voice you’re using.’

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“You’re absolutely right,” Steve Chalke continued. “God does say that we shouldn’t commit adultery, but not in the way you’ve read it.

Before God gives any of the Ten Commandments he introduces himself as the God who loves Israel. He lets them know that he is for them; not against them. He wants the best for them. He knows the pain and heartache that we’ll cause others and ourselves if we pursue agendas that are contrary to the way he made us to be.

The Ten Commandments is a loving God saying, ‘Look, I am the God who loves you. I’m on your side. I got you out of slavery. I’m the best deal you’ve got going for you. Trust me. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t abandon me. Don’t commit adultery, because if you do it will unleash destructive powers that will slowly over‐shadow you, destroying you, your families and your society. Trust me. Don’t be stupid.”

 

There’s another story, quite relevant for this morning, which might give the impression of a God who likes to say No!

It’s in Genesis 11.

Some people decide to build a tower that reaches to heaven so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.  But one night God comes down and inspects what they’re doing. God decides that if they can do this nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  So God says Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.

 So the project fails, and the people scatter. End of story.

 How odd is that?

 

Surely a God who loves his creation, the kind of God who would like to say Yes!  would want us to flourish, to succeed? Sounds like this God feels a bit threatened.  This God sees people about to achieve something and says ‘can’t have that. Must stop that.’

 God says No!

 What’s going on?

A better question is what is God saying No! to?

 

Well, what do we know about Babel? We are told a little in the previous chapter.

 Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. The first centres of his Kingdom were Babylon (also known as Babel) Urruk, Akkad, and Kalneh.

So Babel was built by a guy called Nimrod, who is known as a warrior.

But that’s not all we’re told. Genesis add that his first centres were Babylon, Urruk, Akkad and Kalneh. His first centres. What does that tell you about our Nimrod?

Sounds like he’s spreading doesn’t it? We have a word for that. It sounds like he’s building an empire and using war and violence to achieve it. Doesn’t it?

That’s what happens when someone, or a group of people, use military might and economic dominance to crush anything, and anyone, in their way.

 

Anything else in the story? They bake bricks, to build their tower instead of stone. They use bitumen instead of mortar.

Bitumen was what was used to keep the ark waterproof, to keep it afloat and the people safe. And brick. That was a big breakthrough. Building with stone, all well and good. But it’s difficult and limited.

This is a very modern story in a way, about technology.

Combine those two things. People who have power, build empires and will use war and violence to get their way. And they are the ones with the new technology.

What could possibly go wrong with that?

No, we still fear that today?

Part of our problem in interpreting the scriptures, is that we in the West have power weighted in our favour.

The Bible, on the whole, was written by people who did not have that advantage, and is actually critical of those who do have it.

It’s why we tend to talk about Christian things as ‘spiritual.’

It’s why we hear, maybe even say, things likes don’t mix religion and politics.  Those with power don’t want God getting in the way.

The truth is, this book is every bit as much political as it is religious.

 

But most of the people who wrote it were on the other side.

Does the God in the Babel story say No!?

Yes.

 

But God says No! to a particular way of life, a way which sets itself over and against the rest, that uses power to dominate and exclude others.

God says No! to that, so that he can say yes to one which empowers and includes, and is open to all people.

If you doubt that, ask yourself…. what is the very next story in the Bible, after Babel?

God calls Abraham and says ‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, I will make your name great and you will be a blessing… and all the peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.

Notice those three words towards the end there ‘all the peoples.’

Everyone.

Babel says Yes to a small, elite band who look after their themselves and will use violence to get their way.

God’s Yes is flung wide open. It’s for anyone.

Fast forward several thousand years to the city of Jerusalem, where a crowd has gathered together to celebrate the Jewish spring harvest. It was a feast which occurred 50 days after Passover. Some called it the feast of weeks, others Pentecost.

For a small gathering in that city it was about to become a very special day. Just over 7 weeks ago they thought their leader was dead. He had been arrested, tried, sentenced to death and crucified. They’d buried him and thought that would be the end of the story.

But the following Sunday, some of the women in the group went to the tomb, found it empty then met some strange men who said ‘why are you looking for Jesus here? He’s not dead. He is risen’ And they discovered that was true. Over a period of six weeks, the risen Jesus kept showing up in different places, sharing with them, eating with them, explaining all the things that had just happened, giving them a new way of understanding the scriptures on which they had been raised…

Then 10 days ago they had been with him on a mountain when he had been taken from them, ascended into heaven. But before he went he said ‘don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father has promised which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit… You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 

When Jesus left, he left behind a small crowd of followers, about as many as we get on a good busy Sunday here. Then that Sunday morning they were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a sound like the blowing of a violent wind that came from heaven and filled the house where they were gathered. They saw what seemed like tongues of fire which separated out and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit enabled them.

 

Notice the language in there…

tongues of fire, which separated out on each of them.

 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…

There’s no in group or our group.

It’s not some get it, others don’t.

A tongue came on each of them.

 All of them were filled.

And all of them played their part.

In what?

Well look what happens next…

There were God-fearing Jews from all over their known world in Jerusalem at that time. They appear to have heard whatever it was that was going on where the followers of Jesus had been praying and they came together… There were people from places with all sorts of strange names, that made the reader really grateful I didn’t ask for verses 9-11 to be read. Parthian’s, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs…

But they are from all these places, whatever they’re called… and they all hear about what God has done in their own language.

That’s my favourite bit of the whole story.

 

This is a story about God reaching out into the whole world. This is a God who is building a Kingdom, an empire if you like. Beginning at Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and on to the uttermost parts of the earth. Sounds a bit like the Babel story.

Except Babel was about power and exclusion. This story has lots of references to a God and Kingdom which is open to everyone.

At Babel the languages get confused and they are scattered.

 

Here the diversity of languages brought people together!

This is a story about a God who likes to say Yes. It’s a story about how far that God was prepared to go to give his Yes to all people.

This was a diverse, cosmopolitan crowd. But to reach that whole would only have required two languages. They would all have either understood Aramaic and/or Greek. You might also add Hebrew or possibly Latin.

Some scholars think that this is what actually happened. They think, if you’ll pardon the pun, something got lost in the translation and Luke misunderstood.

But a bunch of Galileans speaking a few languages that were generally known to them, would hardly have caused much amazement.

And it misses the most exciting aspect of the whole story. Not a few Galileans speaking 16+ languages. But the extent to which God was prepared to give his welcome, to give his yes to that assembled crowd.

A couple of languages might have got the job done, but God wasn’t content to deal with people in second languages.

I love being part of a faith community with people of so many different nationalities. I’m always really impressed by how so many of you, especially those who are first generation immigrants speak such brilliant English. I have to say we don’t make it easy for you. We have a strange language. Even stranger when communicated in this accent.

But I’m aware of times when, even with the best of vocabulary, you struggle to make yourself understood to me, and I struggle to make myself understood to you. I find myself thinking ‘if only I could communicate in your first language.’

But I remember times when we have had someone come from China and I have been able to put them with Serphia. Or when Beny, Cristian, Christina, have been able to talk to someone who is Romanian. They are able to hear and be heard in their own language. In their own tongue.

When that happens we get to be Pentecostal. Each person is sharing as they are able in their own tongue.

God is a God who likes to say Yes.  And God’s yes is for everyone. Everyone who calls on the same of the Lord will be saved.

From God’s perspective a second language, however many spoke it, wouldn’t do. If you were a Parthian, a Mede or a Roman, God wanted to speak to you as a Parthian, a Mede or a Roman. That to me is what’s amazing about Pentecost.

And God  uses different people to reach each one.

 

But there’s another dimension to God’s Yes. God is building his empire but who is invited to be part of it?

Again God’s yes is to all people. And how. I will pour out. This is no drip feed. God’s Yes to the Spirit is not grudging. It’s poured out. But on who?

I will pour out my flesh on all people. It says nothing about race, class, qualifications, background, morality… God likes to say Yes.

His Spirit is being poured out on all flesh

 Gender is not an issue to God. Twice in the passage Joel and Peter make that point

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy; then later, just in case you missed it first time; Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy.

 

And in that sentence we also get that status doesn’t matter. The word servant is actually slave. From top to the bottom God’s Spirit is available to all.

It’s sad that so often we have taken the Spirit and made him a source of division. At my course the other week we were discussing Pentecost and asked to give one word to describe the Spirit. The responses were generally positive. Then we were asked how the Holy Spirit might come up in directing conversations. The scenarios were remarkably negative.

 

When you hear those words, spoken on the first day of the church, how has it taken us so long to accept women in ministry?

How is it that the sisters I serve beside in the Baptist family find it so much harder in our settlement processes?

How is it that so many of our churches still don’t accept the validity of women in ministry?

How have we taken a few verses, often ignoring other verses around them and built a theology of exclusion around them?

Could it be we’ve slipped from being part of the story of Genesis 12, of a God who likes to say Yes and slipped back to being a Babel like people of Genesis 11?

Age is not a boundary either. Young men will see visions; Old men will dream dreams. How easy it is for us to dismiss people on the grounds of their youth. To not take them and their ideas seriously. Paul told Timothy not to let anyone look down on him cos he was young. And he could have kept writing those words for much of the next 2000 years. Are we a people saying No! when God wants to say Yes?

But equally we live in a younger and younger person’s world. Where people are made to feel past it. If you doubt me just look at the drivel with which England announced their World Cup squad in the week.

Ours is an age which values the new and the novel and turned its back on wisdom from the past.   True, at different times and seasons in life, the role for which the Spirit empowers us might change. But the Spirit is still empowering us for something. There is no retirement age in God’s Kingdom. God has said No! to the Babel model which excludes. God has a place for you. God likes to say Yes. You might feel past it, and think that society, and even the church is saying No!

Well this morning I want to tell you, the Spirit is for you. We have a God who likes to say Yes and who likes to say it to you.

We need the energy, enthusiasm and vigour of the young, and the wisdom, experience and know how of those who have been around the block a few times. There is room for all.

All of us are welcome to receive him. Male, female, old, young, rich, poor, whatever nationality you are, He is available to all.

And all we have to do is call on him.

To ask him. To say yes to his offer.

The Spirit is a worldwide equal opportunities empowerer.

For he is the Spirit of a God who likes to say Yes.

 

Posted in NOT A SERMON, Uncategorized

Some Thoughts for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018

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In the past I  have suffered from anxiety and depression.

I have felt inadequate, and convinced myself that everything that went wrong was my fault, however little or much control I had over it.

I have told myself that people would be better off without me.

 

I’m not going to make out it was worse than it was. I never considered harming myself. A large part of that was considering the affect it would have on my wife, my family in Ireland, my church, though it was more than that. Nonetheless I would go to sleep thinking it ‘wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I didn’t wake up.’

 

It wasn’t something I could directly relate to circumstances. When the facade finally cracked, things weren’t too bad actually. They’d certainly been a lot worse. But that was beside the point.

 

What’s more, I convinced myself that, as a Baptist pastor people relied on me.

I wouldn’t have expected the same of anyone else, including ministerial colleagues. I’d have told them it was ‘ok to not be ok.’

But I never said that to myself.

Then one day I found myself in the church office, when suddenly I could feel the tension welling up inside me.  It started in my stomach, then up into my upper chest, where I felt I was about to explode.

I had to get out of there. I got my PA to come with me to my office. I’m not sure why. I just couldn’t be alone. Then, almost as soon as the door clicked shut, I found myself unable to stop crying.  If you’d asked me to pinpoint what was wrong, I couldn’t have done it. It was… well… it was just everything.

There was only one thing I did know.

I couldn’t go on.

 

I walked out of the office and went to find my wife at work. Next day I went to speak to my doctor.

 

My first instinct was to hush things up. Just let people know I was ‘unwell’ with some kind of unspecified illness. I mean, I couldn’t tell them what was really going on. I was supposed to be the one who had it all together.

Then I called bullshit. Sorry if that offends anyone, but it was how I felt.

 

Had I been physically ill, I’d have had no such compulsion to cover it up. Why should I feel this way about depression and anxiety?

Besides, what signal did that send to those in my congregation who suffer in this way? That there was something to be ashamed of?

No, that thinking was bullshit. And it was a relief when I told them.

 

I have to admit, I was blessed. I have a great wife who was patient and understanding.

I committed to taking the tablets.

In a few weeks I got myself an excellent therapist. My job enabled me to get some initial sessions at a reduced rate. I caanot recommend Churches’ Ministerial Counselling Services enough.  I still see my therapist every few weeks.  I tell her it’s like a check up at the dentist. I give her permission to poke around my psyche and see if I wince, or if I am keeping myself in check.

The day I broke down, I already had a meeting with my spiritual director in my diary. He too gave a lot of his time to help piece me back together.

I committed myself to mindfulness and meditation.

I had a great church congregation who appreciated my honesty. Sadly that’s not always a given, but in my case it was.

 

Recently someone asked me, was it my faith that helped me get better. Well, in a sense it did. But it was mainly the other stuff. Or at least that’s how God worked in me.

 

We’re coming up for 2 1/2 years on. I still have days when it really is not ok. More than days sometimes. However I take heart that they are noticeable more because they are not the norm. The feelings pass and I can tell myself they will pass because they always have.

I do recognise my blessings. But I have learned that mental illness can come to anyone. You don’t have to have it all together. At the end of the day I’m not convinced any of us has. If we’re honest, most of us are winging it, most of the time.

But when it’s not ok, please, please, please talk about it. Many of us, perhaps particularly men, are crap at talking about this stuff. We convince ourselves we’re supposed to be able to sort this out, that it’s a sign of weakness. Can I just ask you to call bullshit on those attitudes.  Seek what help you can.

Anxiety, depression and all other forms of mental illness are horrible, but they are not entitled to speak the last word on you.

Grace and peace

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Yes Part 1

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Reading: Acts 1: 1-11

This morning Ian read for us an account of Jesus’ last encounter with the disciples before he ascended into heaven.  We get a few words about what happened immediately afterwards this side of that encounter. Two men, or angels, asked the disciples what they were doing staring up into the sky.

But what about on the heaven side?

There is an old legend about what happened as Jesus was welcomed back into heaven. He was greeted by the angels, but then they caught a glimpse of the scars in his hands, feet, and forehead which had been pierced by the thorns. Gabriel says ‘it must have been terrible what you went through, to rescue the world. But still, at least the whole world knows how much God loves them.’

‘Not the whole world’ says Jesus. ‘Just a few of them. You’d like them… Peter, James, John, Mary, quite a few Mary’s actually, Joanna, Thomas…’

‘Just a few of them?’ said a startled angel.

‘How then is the rest of the world to get to know?’

‘Oh, they’ll tell people, who will tell people, who will tell people, it’ll spread outwards. Word of mouth, like…’

‘But… but… but’ said the angels ‘what if they don’t? What if they just stop passing it on? What’s Plan B?’

‘Plan B?’ said Jesus.

‘I’m not sure what you mean. There is no plan B. I’m trusting them.’

 

In this morning’s reading Jesus was placing God’s plans and purposes for the world into the hands of those gathered round him. But if things were going to move forward, it would require their Yes!

Which brings us to our latest word as we continue to explore the different seasons, stages of phases of a life lived in relationship with God.  Yes!

 

Perhaps Yes! is not a word people would immediately associate with Christians.

I’m reminded of an episode of The Vicar of Dibley where they are trying to replace a stained glass window damaged in a storm. Their fundraising efforts are a bit of a disaster and David Horton, the chair of the parish council, says ‘Sadly we must minute that Dibley can’t afford a new window.’

But the vicar interrupts. ‘Stop writing. ‘Can’t’ isn’t in the Christian vocabulary.’

To which one council member replies ‘Yes it is! You can’t commit adultery, You can’t steal…’

and another adds ‘You can’t even covet your neighbour’s ass. Even if it is very alluring!

 

No might be a word more readily associated with Christians, even if not as I talked about it a few months back. There was certainly a lot of No in my early faith background. Drinking, smoking, dancing, cinema, there was a long list of things to which we said No because we were Christians. The list got even longer on Sundays.

 

And, in fairness, there is a place for that kind of No. It’s not all bad. There are a couple of occasions in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus is asked an identical question… what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus response each time is slightly different.

Once he asks what’s written in the law? How do you read it?

On the other occasion he says you know the commandments You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother…

Again, notice, most of them are about what you don’t to.

Different answers, but in a way quite similar. Each time Jesus turns to Torah or Law as a starting point.

We see the same in the Sermon on the Mount. Several times Jesus says ‘you have heard it said… but I say to you.’ Each time he’s talking about one the commands or an established interpretation of scripture. He never says they’re wrong, that Old Testament writers hadn’t a clue what they were talking about, or maybe it’s time we moved on from all that stuff. Quite the opposite. He is trying to take them deeper.

But each time in the background is the realisation that laws, or Nos can only take you so far.

The two guys asking Jesus about eternal life have clearly given it their best shot. One even claimed to have kept all the commandments since childhood. But the fact that they were asking shows it still didn’t seem like enough.

No can be a good place to start. If a command stops you making a really destructive choice, that is good. But it only gets you so far.

And sometimes, particularly when Christians appear on the media, I think we’re better at talking about what we’re against, rather than what we’re for.

Do we also say Yes?

What are we saying Yes to?

And the thing about those questions, how can I inherit eternal life, how can I live in a relationship of love and trust in the divine, is that in the end it’s about grace.

It can’t be earned.

It can only be accepted.

It can only be received.

It needs our Yes.

Of course, others might argue that every journey of faith begins with our Yes! Yes is essential to the Christian faith.

That Yes might, at least at first, be a bit reluctant.  Think of Moses before the burning bush. Moses offered no fewer than 4 reasons why he shouldn’t be the one God sends to Pharaoh. 4 reasons why he shouldn’t say Yes. And when God answers all 4, Moses still asks God to send someone else.

But ultimately, however reluctantly, Moses offers his Yes!

From Isaiah’s Here am I, send me to Mary’s I am the Lord’s servant, let it be as you have said, they are all responses to an invitation from God. They all begin by giving their Yes!  There is a Yes that we can give at the beginning of our Christian journey. And it is good and necessary that we do.

But there’s another kind of Yes which I want to focus on over the next few weeks.

A deeper Yes that comes from experience.

When you’ve been battered by the storms of life.

When your faith has been tested.

When you have passed through those winter phases, where you’ve cried out When? How Long, O Lord? When you’ve been through that season of No! and really wrestled with God. When you’ve cried out Why?

And yet you have hung on in there. At times it might have felt like Peter in John’s Gospel when Jesus is being deserted by the crowds and he asks the disciples if they want to go to. Maybe, like Peter, you’ve found yourself thinking ‘where else can I go?’ But you have held on.

When you say Yes in that situation, it’s very different.

The kind of Yes I’m talking of here follows on from the Behold! which we considered over the previous few weeks.

You’ve passed through the winter and, as we talked about in the last few week, you know you’ll never be the same.

But you’re still here.

And new life is possible.

It might look different, not as you anticipated, and you still bear the scars of what you experienced. But new life is possible.

Will you embrace it?

It needs to be received.

It needs your Yes.

Or maybe, as we considered last week, you’ve caught a glimpse of how God is truly at work in your life, around you, in the wider world. For a long time you’ve thought what difference can I make but somehow you’ve caught a glimpse of small seeds, slowly, often unnoticed, giving birth to new hope and new life.

And you’re challenged or invited to be join in and be part of it.

It needs your Yes!

 

It’s that kind of Yes that we witness at the start of Acts. We don’t know who Theophilus was, but whoever it was, Luke begins Acts by reminding him that he had written a former volume in which Luke had told him of all the things Jesus had begun to do and to teach until the day he was taken up into heaven.

But it’s clear, from that word began to do and to teach, the story is to continue, as it does in Acts, with what he continues to do and to teach.

But this time it looks different. Jesus is nowhere to be seen. By verse 11 Jesus has exited stage up and was hidden from their sight.

You know how sometimes when one person is leaving a job, they may have a handover period with the next person? That’s what had been going on in the 40 days after the resurrection. But now that handover period was over, Jesus was passing it on to them.

 Jesus extended the invitation to be part of it. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

God had a plan and purpose for the world and they were being invited to be part of it.

But it needed their Yes.

And there was no Plan B.

This wasn’t the first time many of these guys had said Yes to Jesus. But this time was different. This was a deeper, post-winter Yes that came from a deeper place or knowledge, or experience, of journeying with Jesus.

It was much deeper than, say Peter, James, John and Andrew had offered, when Jesus had walked by the sea of Galilee and said follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they left their nets and followed.

Or when Matthew left his tax collecting post and took up Jesus’ invitation to follow him.

This Yes cme from a place which had been through the darker side of faith. That had seen Jesus be misunderstood, opposition turning more and more hostile, to the point where he was arrested, tried, crucified, killed and buried.  Their faith hadn’t been too strong in those moments, as they all abandoned him and he was left alone.

And Jesus was not offering any promises that it would be any easier going forward. The word for witness is martys, which is the root of our word martyr.

But it was also a faith which had experienced resurrection. As Luke summarises in the opening words of Acts, Jesus had presented himself to them on several occasions, and offered many convincing proofs that he was alive.

They had witnessed the empty tomb, met Christ on the road, behind locked doors, or by charcoal fires on the shore. It was a faith which was coming to realise how even amongst the very worst that they had been experiencing, God was not defeated, God was bringing good out of it, God was reconciling the whole world to himself.

It was a faith which was beginning to Behold!

But it was still waiting for their Yes.

 

It didn’t mean they had really started all together. They would still make a hash of things. They would still misunderstand. But Jesus was inviting them to offer their Yes.

And in a sense it’s quite encouraging because they are things we have struggled with the same things ever since.

We catch a glimpse of two misunderstandings in our readings. One is in verse 6. Jesus is it now you’re going to restore the Kingdom to Israel. They had been raised on this idea that one day the Messiah would come and defeat all their enemies, which in their immediate context was Rome. Perhaps they also had the Temple authorities in their sights. They had done their worst to get rid of Jesus, yet he was still here. Surely now was the time.

Their mistake was to make it to earthy. We can get caught up in all sorts of things, even the good kind of progressive things I was talking about last week. We can get really passionate about that. And that is good. As I said last week, I genuinely think God is in on that.

But still their vision was too small. The Kingdom of God is certainly not less than that. But it is also a lot more.

But then there was the opposite mistake. Jesus was taken into heaven before their very eyes and a cloud hid them from their sight. Then they were looking up intently into the sky. And suddenly there were two guys standing with them and they said ‘why are you standing around looking into the sky?’

Which is a bit harsh because they’ve just watched Jesus being taken up. Where else would they be looking?

But there’s a sense of them needing to be reminded that their business is here. Or more precisely not up on the mountain. Back down in the world.

If one side is too ‘earthy’ it’s possible to become too ‘heavenly.’

At my course this week we were looking at images of the church. Two of them are Ark and Leaven. The ark is the idea of being rescued, like Noah and the family in the boat. But it can have a tendency to be obsessed with churchy stuff and our relationship with God that they don’t pay any attention to the world around them.

The leaven has the opposite problem. They do great stuff in the world and make an impact, like yeast in the bread (hence the name). But they don’t focus on their relationship with God.

It’s not the only time these two attitudes are set side by side by Luke. One of them is actually in a passage I mentioned earlier, when a guy asks Jesus ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life.’ One day I will write a proper sermon on this. Cos what follows is two stories and we tend to deal with them separately. And we miss something of what they have to say.

Cos the guy has just said that to inherit eternal life he needs to love God with all his heart, soul and strength and love his neighbour as himself.

The two stories which follow are The Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha. In the parable of the Good Samaritan we’re often told the priest and the Levite don’t help the guy because it would have made them unfit for the temple worship. In this story the hero is the activist, loving his neighbour, who gets down and dirty and helps the guy on the road, whilst the bad guys are the ones doing the holy stuff, whose loving God makes them miss their neighbour.

But in the very next story we get Mary and Martha where Jesus seems to take the part of the one doing the holy stuff at the expense of the one doing the practical. Who’s letting loving others get in the way of loving God.

It’s the same idea.

 

Too earthy vs staring into the sky. Which is it? The answer is we need both types of spirituality.

That’s why Jesus tells them to wait for the Spirit. To not go charging off. They’ll only get themselves into a tangle and get lost in the paths they choose.

It’s the Spirit that enables those disciples to offer their Yes and mean it. It’s the Spirit that empowers those disciples who go back down from the mountain to begin the second volume of the story of Jesus. True he can’t be seen, but Jesus is still alive and at work in them through the Spirit, who is the main actor throughout Acts.

But notice how Jesus talks of the Spirit…

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift that my Father promised

 Gift

 The Spirit cannot be earned.

The Spirit can only be received, as a gift.

The Spirit needs our Yes.

We cannot earn the Spirit. The Spirit only comes as a gift. But we can put ourselves in the place where we are ready to receive the Spirit. Through prayer, through meeting together. By being open to God to guide us. That’s how we offer our Yes.

But if we will say Yes, it is The Spirit who guides us along the path, as we seek to find that balance between our relationship with God and our service to the world.

But we’ll never receive him without our Yes.

Perhaps we need to open ourselves to the Spirit for the first time. To have that initial encounter with the Risen Christ, to invite him into our lives and ask him to be our Saviour.

But perhaps we are being called to a deeper Yes. We’ve been through the winter, our faith has been tried, we have wrestled with God, but now the Spirit who has been quietly taking you through that season is showing you signs of new life. Or perhaps the Spirit has been prompting you, guiding you towards some good that God has been at in the world.

You are starting to Behold!

Is the Spirit just waiting for your Yes?

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Behold Part 3

cupsReadings: Colossians 1: 15-20; 1 John 1: 1-4; Matthew 13: 31-33

On Monday morning I was in one of our major coffee chains, getting my caffeine ‘fix.’ I’m a bit of a regular there and know the staff to talk to. And a while ago, when it was in the news about the environmental effects of all the disposable cups they give you to take away, I bought one of these flask-type cups that you can take back and they will use instead. I always pour it into my normal mug when I get back here, but that’s just me. In return for using one of these mugs, I get about 20, 25 pence off a medium Americano. Which can’t be bad!

But on Monday, after I handed the cup over, the guy who was making my coffee asked ‘do you think you’ve made your money back on the cup?’

Well, I think I spent £4 on the cup, so after about 20 cups of coffee, so yes, it’s probably safe to say I have.

But I said ‘yes, probably, but you know I’ve never really thought of that. I just like to think I’m saving the world!’

 

He said ‘well, we can do our little bit, but in the end it’s the big corporations that are killing us all…’

… to which one of his colleagues said ‘you mean, like us?!’

Well, we’ll not got there…

We were all just joking around, but I suppose there is a part of me hopes, even believe, that small actions can make a difference. Especially if enough people join in. I suppose I am hoping it’s like a small seed which is dropped into the ground, but in time produces a tree, great enough for the birds of the air to perch in it’s branches.

I’ve seen it happen often enough, say with Foodbank. We have an article about Foodbank in our current newsletter. I’m sure those involved will tell you some of the things they hear and encounter are heartbreaking. I remember the face of one child when he looked in a foodbank parcel and his face lit up as he exclaimed ‘mummy. We’ve got jam!’ That’ll stick with me forever.

 

We’ve been looking for the last few weeks at the latest of our words which describe different seasons or phases of the spiritual life. The current word is Behold!  It’s been about seeing God at work in unexpected ways and even through some of the most unexpected circumstances.

Last week we looked at the story of Joseph, of the technicolour dreamcoat variety, and we saw how he came to see that even through all the evil, hostility, injustice, and unfairness he faced, God had been at work. Others had sought to do him harm, but God had turned it for good.

 

Well this morning I want to come at this from a slightly different angle.

You see, I think God is at work in all things. That every good and perfect gift has its root in God. If it’s true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy, God is in there, whether he is noticed or even wanted or not.

But it can be difficult to notice him. We might not even be looking for him. We can fail to recognise God or miss him altogether.

In a sense that’s where I was coming from when I gave out this little quiz a couple of weeks ago. Or more precisely, it was given out whilst I was away. Thank you to those who filled it out. I really appreciated it.

 

If you want to know where I got this stuff from, it’s from a book called Factfulness by Hans Rosling. (Seriously, I encourage you to watch any of his talks on youtube. He was one of the most entertaining speakers I’ve ever heard – some links below). He died last year and this was the work he devoted the last years of his life to.

It’s about differences between how we see the world and what is actually happening. Even amongst those closest to it. At one point he talks about teachers, many of whom taught global population trends, being asked a question about their subject area, and only 9% got it right. At the World Economic Forum, where policy to tackle these issues is supposedly developed, only 1 in 4 were operating with correct information, even though that information was freely available.

In one way it’s less of a problem if you and I don’t know this. But maybe we miss something of what God is doing, and perhaps are more reluctant to share in it, because we can’t see it.

Test can be found at http://forms.gapminder.org/s3/test-2018

Question 1: Is the world getting better, worse, or staying about the same?

Not really a fact. There is, as you’ll see an answer I was looking for. But really it depends what you are measuring and what you think is most important. But I wanted to see if how we answer that makes a difference to how we answer other questions.

Our scores

Question Our Score (% Correct Responses) Least Popular Answer Correct
% Girls Low Income Countries Completing Primary School 9% *
Where does majority of world population live (Income) 16%
Change in % World Population in Extreme Poverty 16% *
World Life Expectancy 29% *
Estimate of Number of Chilren in World by 2100 8% *
Main reason for pupulation increase by 2100 25% *
Deaths from Natural Disasters over last 100 years 23% *
Where does majority of world population live (Location) 19%
% 1 year old children vaccinated 11% *
Years, on average, 30 year old woman has spent in school 15% *
Endagered species question 3% *
% world with access to electrity 21% *
Change world temperature over next 100 years 93%

Our average score was 2.9 out of 13.

Interestingly in 10 out of 13 questions, the least popular answer turned out to the right one.

But I was also interested to see if how we view the world made a difference.

Average score of those who think the world is getting better: 4.6

Average score of those who think world is getting worse: 2.2

Now you might say I’ve been very selective in the subjects I’ve chosen to look at. There are things which have grown worse in the world. But these are not isolated examples.

In 1800 there were 193 countries where forced labour was legal. Today that figure is 3.

In that same time the proportion of children dying before their 5th birthday has fallen from 44% to 4%

The number of nuclear warheads in the world today is a quarter of what it was at its peak in 1986.

In the last 20 years new HIV infections have fallen to less than half of what they were 20 years ago.

In 1893 there was only one country where women and men had equal voting right. Today that stands at 193.

That’s not to say they are all democracies, but even then the share of humanity living in democracies has increased from 1% in 1816 to 56% in 2015.

Child cancer survival, access to protected water supplies, literacy, cereal yields, I could go on – all getting better.

 

Yet we struggle to think of it in that way.

Now I didn’t ask you to do that test to try to make you feel stupid or show that I know more than you. I scored 6 when I did the test before reading the book, but that’s still quite a lot I didn’t know.

Rosling did these questions with people all over the world, and basically we are…

 

… normal.

How come there is so much good in the world and we do not notice it? That’s what he spends most of the book discussing and he has a number of reasons.

But I’ll just mention a couple.

Sometimes it’s not really an advantage to be able to reason things out. A chimp choosing answers randomly would score better than most of us do. We Chances are many of us would have done better answering randomly. But we get our news from somewhere. Mainly from the media.

 

Where we encounter media bias. I’m not talking about the press running down the government or whatever. It’s just they can’t tell us everything. They have to choose what they tell us. The media have a job – to get our attention. And they can be quite effective at that.

The one question where we scored well on was the one about climate change. It is in our media all the time. Interestingly it was the one where the answer was more negative. You are made aware of that. You’re not told about how many children are vaccinated, or how many have electricity.

 

In a sense people like me don’t help. Every now and then we will have some sort of appeal and I’ll tell you this many people don’t have clean water, or that many people have no shelter. It’s the same with those adverts that come on TV.

And it’s true.

But in a sense they don’t want you to go away with the idea that you thought things were a lot worse. It’s not a great motivator to do something about it!

 

Which links to the other thing I want to highlight: The difference between improving and good. Just because I have been highlighting that things are improving, is does not mean they are good. I don’t want the thing you take away from this is that things are getting better so we don’t have to try any more.

60% of young girls, in low income countries, finishing primary school is a huge improvement.

But 40% don’t. We’re still on the way.

Same with all the other stuff.

Why is it we don’t hear about all the good that is happening? Because it is the product of slow, methodical work and improvement. They are the product of small seeds which have grown into great plants which provide shelter for so many.

Slow, methodical improvement is not really news. If a plane crashes, that’s news. If millions safely make it to their destination, it’s not.

 

You’ve heard the phrase no news is good news? Well yes, but the fact that it is no news means we are not aware of it, unless we go looking for it. So we don’t notice it. We don’t Behold!

Lots of things are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy and we are unaware of them. God is at work in lots of places and we don’t see them. We don’t Behold!

 

And there is a practical outworking of that. I’m not saying if we were a bit more informed we would be a lot happier about the world. Jesus did say you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. But that’s not my point here.

It’s the fact that God can take our efforts and use them to fulfil far more than we can ask or imagine. Seeds can achieve far more than we know.

One local example. One of our local MPs, Bob Blackman, was invited by Firm Foundation to visit one of their night shelters. He returned this year, when our team was cooking the meal. He knows good cooking when he sees it!

 But Bob was impressed by the work and challenges faced by Firm Foundation and took the opportunity to introduce a Private Members’ Bill in Parliament called the Homelessness Reduction Bill. He even mentioned Firm Foundation in Parliament. Private Members Bills don’t have the highest rate of success. But Bob was successful and on April 3 this year, the Homelessness Reduction Act passed into law. It is, as a speaker from Shelter described it, in a positive way, the most significant piece of homelessness legislation in this country in the last 40 years.

And it starts in a night shelter.

Small things matter. Though it takes faith to Behold! cos it’s how God works.

But as I leave this word behind I just want to highlight it’s how our faith was born.

Those two passages from Colossians and John make really big statements about Jesus. Who creates, sustains and reconciles all things. These words were written maybe about 25, 30 years after Jesus walked the earth. The words from John another 20, 30 years later?

To use, after years of being handed on, they are part of our tradition, our faith. But we can miss something…

 

They were writing about someone who lived fairly recently. They had seen with their eyes, they had looked at (or reflected on him and what he meant). They had touched him. And they came to see that in him God was moving amongst us.

 If you want to grasp that… imagine someone where to say that about Mahatma Ghandi, or Martin Luther King. I pick those examples because they lived in the lifetimes of some of you and were assassinated largely because of what they stood for.

Even then you would not really be getting close. If you wanted to get to the shock value of these words you would need someone who was executed by the superpower of their day.

 

It didn’t come all at once. Even to those who believed in him. They found themselves scratching their heads thinking ‘who is this?’

And he was easily missed. So easily missed that those who should have known better didn’t get it. He came to his own and they didn’t recognise him.

And he was rejected. He was nailed to a cross. A brutal form of execution. And he was laid in the ground. Even when he rose from the dead, they struggled to understand him.

But in time, through reflection, prayer, the presence of the Spirit, in community with one another, there were those who came to see it, to Behold! it.

God had been at work.

Even in the worst of things.

Even in his rejection God was reconciling all things to himself.

God was opening the way back to relationship with him.

 

But that can be missed every bit as much as his work in the world. It takes faith to Behold! it. Every bit as much as it takes to Behold the good he is doing in the world, and is doing amongst us.

But we can do things to help us Behold! And you’re invited to join in one now, as we gather round the table, take a piece of broken bread, a tiny sip of wine, very ordinary things, nothing special about them at all, and uses them to communicate with us about his love for us, and his plans for us.  How God is at work, even in the most ordinary, mundane, non-newsworthy things, drawing us back into relationship with himself, healing his world, offering us life.

May we eat, drink, reflect and Behold!

Hans Rosling talks:  https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen

https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_reveals_new_insights_on_poverty

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Behold! Part 2

joseph_coat_colors_bible_hero_poster_1_1

Reading: Genesis 45: 1-15; 50: 15-21

I often find myself in conversations about how I became a minister. People often assume that I studied Theology at university and my job was a natural progression from that. It surprises them that although I did study theology later (and even did some Biblical Studies at St Andrews) my actual degree was in Economics. Then they ask ‘so how did you end up doing this from there.’

did pursue the Economics thing for a while. I was a researcher in a business school and I taught finance students but my academic career did not end well. It’s a long story. In truth it was probably for the best, I didn’t really have a passion for what I was doing. But I still felt badly treated, and it didn’t seem like a good thing at the time.

Around that time I made a shortlist of two for a wellipaid job with a big company in Birmingham. The job seemed suited to me and I thought the interview had gone brilliantly. When I told one of my friends about it he told me not to make any plans for December 25. They seemed to like me so much they would probably invite me to Christmas dinner!

But they went with the other person.

A few months later there was another job that really excited me. So much so that, the other evening, neither Julie nor I could remember who it was with. But I was excited at the time. And again I was on a shortlist of two.

But again they chose the other person.

I remember my birthday 15 years ago, being quite disheartened. Julie and I spent the day in Banbury, for some reason. Julie tried to encourage me, it’s a numbers game, you will be the one chosen one of these days, then you’ll prove yourself…

That was a Friday. The following Monday I put some new CVs into a few agencies in Birmingham and was working by Tuesday morning. There were a few minor detours, but a couple of months later I got a contract doing admin in a homeless admissions centre.

Then one day the big bosses in houses wanted a report on something. I was asked if I could just produce a few figures. But one of the things my time at universities has taught me was how to use spreadsheets. I really put everything into this.  My boss took my report to his bosses and when he came back he said ‘you should have seen their faces. They were really impressed. It told them far more than they asked. They didn’t even know they could find out some of this stuff. They didn’t understand it all, but they were happy you seemed to know what you were talking about. But they were impressed!’

They were restructuring our department. And mainly as a result of that report they created a permanent job which may as well have had my name of the Person Specification. After a few months in the role one of the ‘up there’ bosses asked me to a meeting where she said they had undergraded my job and gave me a 40% pay rise.

That might have made a very good, happy ending to the story…

…but a few days earlier I had been accepted by the ministerial recognition committee to train for Baptist ministry.

But you know I look back over that whole period, including the hurts and disappointments, and see how they have helped me in what I do now. God did bring good out of them.

I didn’t see it at the time. I may have occasionally hoped some good would come out of it. But I couldn’t see it.

But I look back on those times when I seemed to be living in the When/How Long? and Why?  and from here I can have a sense that God was at work even in the midst of all that. I look back with a sense of what I described a couple of weeks ago with this word Behold!

 

Behold! is the latest in our 12 words, seasons or phases in a healthy, living relationship with God. I introduced it a couple of weeks ago.

At first glance it might seem a little similar to some of the earlier words as it is talking about noticing about how God is with us.

But in another sense it is very different. For Behold! is for those who have been through the cold, dark winter season of life and of faith. When things have stopped making sense, when you’ve been through that time when you’ve wondered if you are ever going to get through this.

Behold! is about looking for the potential for new life, new hope, resurrection even. 

Behold! is not about saying what happened in those dark seasons didn’t matter; that it wasn’t as bad as you think. You don’t have to look back and say that’s ok, then. 

Behold! is not about blurring distinctions between good and bad, like it’s just a matter of perspective. 

Behold! is not even about saying there is something good about the bad we encountered. 

But Behold! is about saying that even despite that new life is possible. 

There is potential for good to emerge, whatever we face.

It might be hard to see it.

It may look different.

But there is life. There will be life.

There is nothing from which God cannot bring good.

More can be mended than we know.

The story of Joseph is a Behold! story, although on a lot grander scale than the one I opened with. However low I felt, I was never in the place where Joseph was. I might have felt unfairly treated at the start of the story, but I did not encounter anything like the injustice Joseph faced. And certainly I’ve not risen to anything like his importance!

Of the main characters in the Genesis’ stories, more space is devoted to Joseph and his story than to anyone else. That’s more than Isaac, Jacob, and even Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith. It’s such a great story that it’s even been made into a hit musical with an Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

But this is more than just a great rags to riches story, or a story about someone overcoming great adversity (though there is plenty of that).  This morning I’m not going to stick just with the bit we read, I want to look at it more widely. But in both this morning’s readings we get to the key point.

We get it 3 times in 4 verses in Genesis 45 (5-8)

Now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you… God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance… it was not you who sent me here, but God

Or later, after Jacob has died and Joseph’s brothers worry that Joseph might choose this moment to take his revenge on them, Joseph says You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 

This is a Behold! story. Joseph is not saying that what his brothers did was ok. It was evil. They did intend to harm him. And what others did to him was wrong too. But Joseph has reached the place that he can look back on all that has taken place over perhaps 20 years and see that God was somehow at work in it all. And God had brought good even out of the most terrible of experiences, even out of the intended evil.

That doesn’t mean he always saw God in it. I would say there’s good reason for thinking it’s only as he reaches the start of Genesis 45 that he really has a fuller Behold! moment. But he has reached the place where he can see God at work in all the stuff that happened.

What did he experience? I’ll try to cover it briefly…

Joseph was one of 12 sons of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. Now this is the family through who God was supposedly going to bless the whole world. Remember that.

Because this family was a right mess. It was family wracked the favouritism. If you look back over the Genesis they have a long history of it. Causing problems by favouring one child over another.

Jacob has children with a mix of four women. Be careful what you are advocating when you talk about ‘Biblical marriage.’ But Rachel is his favourite of them. She also found it hard to conceive, so when she had Joseph, Joseph quickly became his favourite.

Jacob didn’t even try to pretend he loved all his children equally. He gave Joseph a gift of a coat. Whatever it was it was clearly very special and it is described in such a way as to suggest that Joseph didn’t have to work like other brothers. It was long, with full length sleeves, which would have been impractical for working. So there is more going on here than simply giving him a new Prada jacket, whilst the others get their presents from Primark.

Joseph then had a dream. He talks of binding sheaves of wheat, then his sheaf standing upright and all the brothers sheaves bowing down to Joseph’s. Shall we say this didn’t help him.

Had I said this in my family the dead arms and Chinese burns I’d have got would have deterred me from saying anything similar again. Maybe if one of them had tried that with Joseph it wouldn’t have got so out of hand.

But not Joseph. He has another dream in which the sun, moon and 11 stars bow down to him. And he tells them.

So resentment really builds up in the family. So much so that one day, when the father sends Joseph out to check up on the brothers at work they decide to kill him and chuck him into a pit. But one of the brothers, Reuben, says ‘no, let’s not kill him. Just chuck him in the pit. He has plans to rescue Joseph later.

Then Reuben appears to disappear for a while. But whilst he is gone some traders come by and one of the brothers comes up with the idea of selling Joseph into slavery. Judah actually says killing him is a bit harsh. Let’s sell him into slavery instead.

Cos that’s just so much nicer…

Remember this is the family that is supposed to bless the whole world??? Looking really good so far.

So they sell him into slavery, dip Joseph’s technicolour dreamcoat in animal blood and pretend to their father that Joseph is dead.

Interesting side point. The people they sell him to are Ishmaelites. This is a different branch of Abraham’s family which had been a source of tension a long time before. In one sense that’s highlighting just how bad things have got. They are collaborating with those who have historically been their enemies to harm their own brother.  But if you look at it in a different way, God is using that other part of Abraham’s family to play a part in saving Joseph, saving Egypt and blessing the world. But we’re a long way from there yet.

Joseph is taken to Egypt where he is sold to a quite senior figure called Potiphar. Joseph proves trustworthy and excels at his work. He is put in charge of Potiphar’s whole household.

But thing is Joseph also appears to be a bit of a looker and Potiphar’s wife tries to get him to start and affair with her. Joseph refuses her advances.

But one day he is alone in the house with her when she basically pounces on him. Joseph pulls himself out of his coat and runs.

Potiphar’s wife does not take the rejection well. She uses the coat to claim Joseph had tried to rape her.

The fact that Potiphar has Joseph put in prison rather than killed, suggests that Potiphar is not convinced that his wife is being entirely honest. But he still has Joseph thrown into prison. So even though Joseph tried to do the right thing, he still winds up in prison.

But again Joseph proves trustworthy and excels in prison and is put in charge of the prison. Then two of the Pharaoh’s servants, a cupbearer and a baker are thrown into jail with him. One night both have troubling dreams. They mention it to Joseph who interprets them both. For the cupbearer it suggests he is about to be returned to service, but for the baker it suggests he is about to be killed. Joseph tells him the meaning of their dreams, telling them it is God, not him, giving the interpretation. What he says comes true. But, as the cupbearer is released, Joseph says to him, remember me when you get out of here.

But the cupbearer forgets all about him.

And again, although Joseph has tried to do the right thing, no help comes. He is still in a why? or how long? season. And two more years pass.

Then Pharaoh has a couple of troubling dreams which no-one can interpret. At this point the cupbearer says ‘oh, yes, I knew a bloke once… ‘ and Joseph is taken from prison and brought to Pharaoh.

Again Joseph does not take the credit, but says God can hep him and tells Pharaoh the interpretation of his dreams.

There are going to be 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. So best to store up during the 7 years of plenty, then you will have enough to get through the 7 bad years. You’ll need someone to administer that, he says. Pharaoh says you sound like just the man. So like that Joseph rises to be second in the land.

Time passes. The 7 years of plenty come and go. The 7 years of famine begin. Then Jacob sends most of his sons to get food in Egypt. They come before Joseph. He recognises them, but unsurprisingly they don’t recognise him.

It’s here that I part company with most of the people who write about Joseph. As Christians we keep trying to see the Jesus type character. Which here is going to be Joseph, to be fair. He is the Saviour figure.

But we can rush to get there. We want to focus on Joseph the good guy who forgives his brothers. But what follows is a lot of shenanigans in which Joseph displays he can be as guilty of the same favouritism, deception and vindictiveness as those same writers criticise in Jacob.

But somehow it gets overlooked when Joseph. I’m amazed at some of the justifications made for Joseph’s behaviour.

What’s going on here?

I would say this is Joseph comes to terms with what has happened in his own family. Along the way he’s been able to see how various parts of his life have helped bring him to this place. And perhaps he can come to terms with what happened with Potiphar’s wife and being forgotten by the cupbearer.

But he’s still got his own personal stuff to deal with.

And that’s a lot harder.

In churches we can talk about forgiveness, how important it is that we do it, if we don’t forgive others their sins, will God forgive us?…

And I believe every word of that.  All of it is entirely true and important.

But we can sometimes not fully acknowledge how hard it can be. That forgiveness like any form of healing can take time. Forgiveness is a journey. And I think we’d be doing people a favour if we showed that, rather than try to gloss over it; when it’s right there in a Bible story, as it is right here. Joseph is in turmoil and it brings out the worst in him. He gets there… but it’s a journey.

That’s why I think as we picked up the reading Joseph can no longer control himself. Translated literally he collapses before them. Sometimes it can be easier to care for the people out there, than it is to care for the nearest and dearest, particularly when they hurt you. Now he has to face it.

He had come to see that God had come to use the time he spent in Potiphar’s house and even in prison to bring him to the place he was now. But that God had also been in the really painful stuff. Through the messed up family, the division, the cruel treatment, the sibling rivalry. It had been really messed up but it was part of what brought him here.

Through the murderous plot by his brothers, through the attempted seduction in Potiphar’s house, through the forgetfulness of the cupbearer, God had been in it all working through it. None of it was wasted. It was all part of the story. God had an ability to turn it all for good.

That didn’t make any of it ok. Just as three times he mentioned God had brought him to Egypt, so three times he mentions what they did. I am Joseph he says, probably speaking to them for the first time in their native language. Whom you sold into slavery. Don’t be angry because you sold me here. It was not you who sent me here… And later in Genesis 50 ‘as for you, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,’

Joseph does not gloss over or minimise what they did. It did matter. It was as bad as he and they remembered. He didn’t have to try to think there was something good about any of it.

But new life and new beginnings were possible. Because of God and what he had done. It may have looked different. But there was life. There was nothing from which God cannot bring good. God had been at work through the evil plans of evil people.  More can be mended than he knew.

Perhaps in Genesis 45, Joseph was seeing it this clearly for the first time. In fact Joseph doesn’t just have a Behold! moment for himself. He offers one to the brothers. In chapter 50 ‘Look! you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, so that lives all around you would be saved.’ Sometimes it’s not just about us. It’s bigger than that.

It looked like the family of promise was a right mess. With good reason. They were. But even in that mess the world, as they knew it, was being blessed.The good God had intended was not just for Joseph (though he did fairly well out of the deal), nor for Jacob’s family (who probably got more than they deserved) but all the nations in their region. God at been at work even in the dark destructive moments when God seemed absent.

Joseph cannot always have seen that. One of the other main interesting things about the main characters in the Genesis story is that although more space is given to him than anyone else, Joseph is the only one to whom God is not reported as speaking directly.

Adam and Eve, yep.

Cain – yep.

Noah – Yep.

Abraham – Yep.

Isaac – Yep.

Jacob – Yep.

Joseph? Twice we are told God is with him, but this only becomes apparent through events. In the narrative God speaks not one word directly to him.

That is what makes this story a really great Behold! story. Because that’s how God most often comes to us. You might be someone who ‘hears from God’ all the time. I don’t. As Catholic writer Paula D’Arcy once said God comes to us disguised as our life.

Yes, there will be times when in scripture reading and prayer I sense God speaking into what is going on around me or is on my mind, but for the most part for most of us it will be in the circumstances we find ourselves, the events which surround us, the conversations we have. That’s why so frequently I pray the Celtic prayer

Be in the heart of each to whom I speak

And in the mouth of each who speaks unto me. 

The Ignatians, whom I know Lin mentioned last week, talk about God in all things. And perhaps sometimes we notice him.

But then there are times when he seems hidden, when we can’t see him. In the When?, No!, and Why? seasons and it’s only later it starts to make any sort of sense.

It doesn’t become ok.

It doesn’t go back to how it was.

But God is at work in it. God can bring good out of it.

Because that is how our salvation comes about. It is in the ordinary, dark, seedy aspects of power that God reaches us. Through jealousy, politics, petty rivalry, power games, Jesus was brought to the cross. But in the midst of it all, God was saving his people. God was saving all people.

And in the midst of all things, God is reaching out to us. Nothing is beyond his reach. When it comes to you, may you have the grace to Behold! it.