Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Help Part 2


Reading: I Chronicles 4: 9-10; 2 Corinthians 4: 1-12

In his book Being Human, Steve Chalke tells a story about a child who was abandoned at one of his Oasis Trust projects in Zimbabwe.

It is part of the culture of some of the people groups living there that the father of a new-born baby will name the child according to the dominant thought that comes into his head when he first sees the child. So names like Beautiful, Mercy, Grace, Lovely and Pretty are very popular.

But the name given to the child abandoned at the Oasis Project was ‘No Matter.’

She arrived at their centre without any official documentation. So it fell to the staff at the project to register her with the authorities. When two gap year students went to the appropriate offices, where they found a great line of people waiting to be seen by registrars. They didn’t want this little girl going through life carrying that name. So the students had an idea.

Eventually they reached the front of the queue where the official behind the desk asked them for the child’s first name. Together they said ‘Precious.’ They wanted her name to tell a very different story about her.

We encounter a man in a similar situation to No Matter in the reading from Chronicles this morning. Only in his case no-one changed his name. He did carry it through life.

When I told Rosalie in the office what I was talking about this week she told me that one of her relatives is called Jabez. That alone might be evidence for the truth of what I want to share with you this morning.

But it’s not a name you’d have wanted to have been given in the Old Testament period. For the name Jabez means ‘he causes pain’ or ‘he will cause pain.’ Imagine calling your child ‘migraine’, ‘nausea’ or ‘cramps’ and you get a sense of what’s going on here.


The story of Jabez crops up in one the least read sections of one of the least read books of the Bible. If we were a church that followed lectionaries we’d never turn to Chronicles at all, and you may be forgiven for thinking that no bad thing.

The story of Jabez only lasts a couple of verses, but that’s more than we know about most of the other characters mentioned around him on the page. The opening chapters of Chronicles offer an ‘official family tree’ of the various Hebrew tribes. Jabez’s story crops up in the midst of Judah’s ancestors. More than 40 other names have already been mentioned in I Chronicles 4 by the time we reach Jabez at verse 9. Another huge list of name starts in verse 11. But in the midst of a great big list of names we get this little story.

There are a few things we pick up from the two verses. One is that things started badly for Jabez. He was given a terrible name. Many of you will know only too well from personal experience that childbirth is a painful experience in normal circumstances. There must have been something pretty terrible that caused Jabez’s mother to name him as she does. And it can’t have been particularly healthy for his to have been constantly reminded of it.

But things end well. Jabez turns out more honourable than his brothers.

The other thing we read is that he prayed a prayer. He prayed…

Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory

Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm

So that I will be free from pain.


We’ve been spending time in the different phases or seasons of the spiritual life. Each word of season has been assigned a word. And the word we started considering last week was Help!

We talked last week about the difference between prayers of intercession and prayers of petition. Intercession is when we are praying for someone else or for a situation, say that we hear of in the news. So when we pray for someone who is sick, or for mission organisations on the news sheets, or for Christians around the world facing persecution, that’s intercession.

Petition is prayer by me, for me. That’s what we’re thinking about in this word Help!


Help! is about recognising that all of us, at some point, come up short. To use the language of Paul in II Corinthians, we are all like plain, old cracked pots. Fragile and vulnerable. We’d love to have all the answers. But it seems life is engineered so that all of us, at some point, will have reason to cry out for help, from others and/or God.

The prayer of Jabez is a Help! prayer.

A number of years ago the Prayer of Jabez was the subject of a book which sold millions of copies. It was a little book, but it opened with a very big statement about petition. It said…

Dear Reader, I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers… [which] contains the key to a life of extraordinary favour with God.


It may have sold lots but it was far from universally popular. As you might guess from that opening description, some claimed it was proclaiming a ‘prosperity Gospel’ type message, where God always wants you to make you healthy and wealthy and the only thing keeping you from health and wealth is your own lack of faith. It treats God like a kind of genie, fulfilling our desires, and reduces prayer to a magic formula.

I can see why the book and the prayer were viewed and used in that kind of way. But in fairness to the author Bruce Wilkinson, that’s not what he says. In fact he explicitly states that’s not what it’s about. And most of you will know me well enough to know I’m unlikely to use it in that kind of way this morning.


But before I go on, it needs to be noted that Jabez does seem to pray for material blessing. He does say enlarge my territory. Some other translations have him asking God to enlarge my borders. It’s likely, probable even, that he was talking about land.

The King James Bible says ‘enlarge my coasts’ which is slightly different. And it’s possible he was using a similar kind of term we might use, when we talk about broadening our horizons. Getting a bigger picture. Helping us to see things differently.


And it is certainly not wrong to ask God for help with material things. I do believe God is interested in our happiness and caring for us. Jesus told us to pray give us this day our daily bread.

In fact there’s a good moral reason to ask God for help in material matters. If we decide we cannot trust God to look after us, we will become anxious. If you start to believe your happiness and safety all depends on you, you will become self-absorbed. Trusting that God will care for you frees you up to be more generous. It empowers you to look outwards and how you might be a blessing to others.



But what is going on in this little story and in the prayer?

Some of the language, particularly towards the end of the prayer is a little ambiguous which means it is translated differently in different versions of the Bible.

The church Bibles put it

Bless me, God, and give me much land

Be with me and keep me from anything evil

That might cause me pain

Another version has it, as I showed you earlier

Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory

Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm

So that I will be free from pain.

 Looked at that way the whole prayer seems to be a ‘look after me’ type prayer. Which is not unreasonable.

But it’s hard to see why it would make him honourable.


But other translations have a better, or certainly more interesting translation

Oh, that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory

That your hand would be with me

And that you would keep me from evil

That I may not cause pain.

 Can I suggest why I think that’s a better translation? It’s not just that it feels less selfish and more like the way I would have liked him to pray. It just makes sense of the story.

Jabez’s mother gave him a name which says he will cause pain. Just as in the Zimbabwean culture where a father would name a child according to his thoughts on first seeing the child, in the Hebrew culture the name of a child often contained a prophecy or vision of how life would unfold for this child.

Just as the gap year students did not want a child called ‘No matter’ living up to her name, so Jabez wanted to avoid fulfilling the ‘promise’ of his name.

He’s asking to be better than the labels that have been placed on him. Help me to live in a healthier, better life than is expected of me, than they seem to think I am capable of.

Jabez seems to be saying ‘I caused my mother pain at birth and she named me pain as a result. That name has hurt me. But I don’t want to keep the chain reaction of pain going. Bless me, enlarge my borders, be with me, help me stop the cycle of pain. Bless me, so that I can be a source of blessing to others rather than a source of pain.’

Jabez recognises that is not an easy thing to do. He knows he can’t manage it on his own. That’s why he prays ‘Let your hand be with me.’ God help me. Strengthen me to do this. I’m feeling the hurt of wrong done to me, I’ve carried it around for so long. It’s been the story I’ve been told my whole life. If I rely on my own strength, my own wisdom, I will be tempted to react badly and cause pain, just as they expect. Free me from the need to pass that on.

Bless me that I might bless others.

It echoes the promise to Abram which itself echoes through the whole Bible. ‘Abram, I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make you a great nation. And you will be a blessing. All the people’s on earth will be blessed through you.’

When you see the prayer in that way, you can see why the person who compiled the Chronicles thought he stood out. You can see why Jabez was described as honourable.

And you can see why such a prayer would resonate with people today. Because, although we might not recognise it as such, each of us is telling a story which affects how we live. It affects how we view ourselves. It gives us a sense of worth, purpose and direction.

Some parts of that story will be good.

But others won’t be.

Some parts are harmful.

People carry around all sorts of messages and they affects their lives.

I’m ugly.

I’m stupid.

I’m fat.

I failed.

I’m sick.

I’m immoral.

I’m not wanted.

I’m too slow.

I’m no use to anyone.

I’ll never amount to anything.

What would anyone see in me?

How could anyone love me?

I’ve wasted my life.

Some of them have been passed on to us by others. Careless words spoken years ago which have stuck to us like Velcro. Some of them we’ve been telling ourselves. We’d love them to be different, but we get stuck in a rut.

All of us, in our own ways, are jars of clay. Some of us might be prettier on the surface to look at. But at the end of the day we’re all fragile, we’re all vulnerable. Each of us in our own ways can become cracked and damaged.

The lesson from Jabez is that your story doesn’t have to get stuck and end there. It can be rewritten.

And it begins with a single word Help!

Jabez carried around painful story. He had lived with the hurt of what what had been done to him, quite literally his whole life. But he sensed that he was more than that. Better than that. More precious than that.

Which is part of what Paul is saying in II Corinthians. Archaeological finds from the era help us to better understand the image Paul used. They have uncovered clay jars containing hoards of coins. Some of you may have hidden cash in an ordinary jar that might just as easily have contained coffee or something like that.

Well, in the ancient world they would hide precious or valuable items in plain ordinary jars, which would not attract attention. On the surface it wasn’t much to look at, but inside the contents were precious. Or in times of war and disturbance they would bury them in the ground and the clay jar was to keep the coins safe and together.

But in either case, it wasn’t the clay jar that was the valuable thing. It was fragile. It could crack and break easily. What mattered was the contents.

Your life is precious and your real value is bound up in how God sees you, how God values you, how God views you. You are created in God’s image. You are precious enough that God sent Jesus into the world and Jesus went to the cross for you.

But we carry that message in jars of clay. We are fragile, vulnerable, easily cracked and broken. Easily damaged.


Paul knew he was like that. Given how much of the New Testament is given over to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, it might surprise you to know that his relationship with them was not great. When people say to me that we need to get back to the New Testament church, I always answer ‘Not if we turn out like Corinth.’

II Corinthians is really quite a troubled letter. Paul had founded their church on his missionary journeys, but since those days others have come along and they have proved more impressive. On the surface, at least, they have been more successful. But this hasn’t always been to do with the truth or quality of their message.

But we see something of what they said about Paul in the passage we shared together. Reading a letter is really like only catching one side of a conversation, so it’s hard to be precise on the accusations. Some it seemed claimed he used underhand tactics to get his way. His motives were misinterpreted, his actions misconstrued and his words twisted against him. If you read the rest of the letter you’ll see they thought he was not an impressive figure. It seems he was an odd-looking man. It might surprise you to know he wasn’t much of a preacher. One of the things they said about him was that he sounded impressive in his letters, but when you met him he was a bit of a disappointment. He was in and out of trouble all the time. Some believed if God was really with him, surely his own life would be working out better. He wouldn’t have as much trouble as he was having.

Paul doesn’t hide from any of it. He doesn’t claim that following Jesus makes his life easy. And he is a clay jar. He is fragile and vulnerable. He can be hurt. He can be battered by troubles, unsure of what to do, spiritually terrorised, put down, depressed.

He is prone to all of that.

He’s a jar of clay.

But his story doesn’t have to get stuck there. He didn’t have to keep the cycle of pain going. He was made for than that. He was more precious than that. Hid value was bound up in what God had done for him in Christ and the calling Jesus had placed on his life.

His story can be told differently and that starts with a single word. Help!

In verses 8 and 9 we see 4 difficulties in which we see Paul as the jar of clay. But because of the power of the God to whom he cries for help, each difficulty is followed by a ‘but not’

Yes, he is hard pressed. But he is not crushed.

Yes, he is perplexed. But he does not despair.

Yes, he is persecuted. But he is not abandoned.

Yes, he is struck down. But he is not destroyed.

Paul can acknowledge all that he faces, all the hurt he feels, and he turns for help to deal with it. And in the midst of his difficult, fragile life, the divine power can still be known. It can still make the difference. It can give him the strength to keep going. It can keep him rewriting the story and stop him from passing on the hurt. Accusations might be hurled at him. But Paul just wants to pass on life and blessing.

A few weeks ago we looked at Sorry. We spoke of self-examination. Of recognising, acknowledging, naming our own sin, our own unique mix of the HPTMTU. And confession is part of a healthy spirituality. It’s part of what brings our healing.

And in traditions like ours, which emphasise personal relationships with Jesus, personal discipleship and piety, we can focus hard on Sorry.

But a key part of the healing we need is not from sin we’ve done, but from what has been doe to us. We need help with the hurt we carry around. For yes, we are precious. We are bearers of the divine image. Each and every last one of us.

But we carry it around in jars of clay. We are fragile. We can be hurt. We can be cracked. We can be broken. We can carry around stories we’ve been told or we’ve been telling ourselves which are harmful. It affects how we see ourselves and how we live.

And the danger is, as Franciscan monk Richard Rohr says, that ‘pain that isn’t processed is passed on. Pain that isn’t transformed is transmitted.’

What we can learn from Jabez is not that God wants to make us super healthy and wealthy, but that we don’t need to get stuck in the story. But before we can live a new story we need to stop rereading the old one.

It might start with saying yes, I’ve been hurt. And it mattered. But I don’t want to simply pass that on. I don’t want to keep that chain reaction going. God, you consider me so precious that you sent Jesus for me. Jesus tells me I am better than the labels that have been placed on me, and that I place on myself. I’m feel the hurt of wrong done to me, I’ve carried it around for so long. It’s been the story I’ve been told my whole life.

So help me. Bless me, enlarge my borders, be with me, help me stop the cycle of pain. Bless me, so that I can be a source of blessing to others rather than a source of pain.’ If I rely on my own strength, my own wisdom, I will be tempted to react badly and cause pain, just as they expect. Free me from the need to pass that on. I can’t manage it on his own. So ‘Let your hand be with me.’

God help me.

Strengthen me to do this.

Take this jar of clay, fragile and cracked as it is and let your light shone in it and from it.

Help me to rewrite the story of who I am.

And may it be the story of who I am in Christ.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Help Part 1


Reading: Mark 9: 14-29

We opened with a snippet from the Beatles’ Song Help.

Today we are starting a new word. Based on that introduction, can you guess what it is?


Way back since the start of the year we have been focussing on how at the heart of our faith is this idea of knowing Christ. That God has created us for relationship with himself. God longs to be known and reveals himself to us through Jesus of Nazareth. And through Jesus we are invited to come to live in relationship with God our creator.

Then over the last few months we have been considering different phases, stages or seasons which make up a healthy spiritual life. Each of them has been assigned a word.

Help is the word we’ll be looking at over the next few weeks.


But just a couple of things before I dive in. When you present stuff in this kind of way, it can create the idea that there is some kind of linear progression. You should move from Here, to O, to Thanks… and so on.

But life doesn’t work like that. Even in the ordered progression of our seasons, we have warm sunny days in winter, or cold, wet, miserable periods in summer. And people are way more complex than seasons. To borrow from another Beatles’ song, the spiritual path is a long and winding road. If we examine ourselves and ask what spiritual season we find ourselves in, it might not be straightforward. We might recognise something of ourselves in several stages or seasons. Some of the stages might even overlap.


It might also suggest that there are good seasons and bad seasons. We could be tempted to think we need to try to rush through the lower points, the tougher seasons and that the aim is to get to the sense of the presence of God, experience wonder and so on.

That’s a perfectly human thing to want to do. But that’s not how life works and it’s not the point I’m making. It’s all these seasons taken together that make for a rounded, healthy, spiritual life. Every stage, or season, can have something of value in it.

Also our faith journey’s all follow very different routes. Whilst there may be something of this kind of cycle going on, we might start at different points. I would say more people probably begin at sorry than here.

And probably even more people begin with Help.


Nonetheless, there is a bit of progression or flow to these words. Here was about God wanting to meet us, and enter into relationship just where we are, as we are. God is interested in all of life and we do not have to get into a particular place physically or spiritually to set out on that relationship.

A natural reaction to an encounter with God is, O, or awe and wonder. We might be driven to awe and wonder at God’s power in creation. We might be wowed as we explore God’s great love, justice, grace and mercy, and the lengths to which God was prepared to go to reach out to us. We might wonder at what God longs to do in us and with us in his world, in our homes, our workplaces, our gyms, amongst our friends whatever. God is able to do more infinitely abundantly above all we ask or think. O, or Awe and wonder are certainly part of a healthy spirituality.

As is Thanks or gratitude. Our world is designed in such a way as our life is sustained. As we enter into relationship with God we see how much we have to be thankful for. We come to see I am not in control, and that’s ok.

But it also opens our eyes to see ourselves as we truly are. The most common description of encounters with the divine in scripture is fear and a sense of unworthiness. Another healthy part of good spirituality is Sorry: recognising that we are not perfect. Everyone mucks up. Every last one of us. In different ways, in different times, to different degrees. But we all do it. We each have our own unique mix of what Spufford called the Human Propensity to Muck Things Up (HPTMTU). I was with a colleague in the week and he will work with different counsellors and mental health professionals and he said they will have different terminology for it, but it all is pretty much what the Bible calls sin.

We can try to cover it or justify it, but Sorry was about recognising it and naming it. Not so we can wallow in self-pity or self-loathing. Indeed honesty and stepping into the light, may reveal false-guilt or areas where we do not need healing. But God wants to heal us, forgive us, give us a fresh start.

But that’s not always easy. We try to make that fresh start, but struggle to make it on our own. Knowing you need to make a change, knowing a path is destructive and harmful, is one thing. Transformation is another. We might think ‘I can’t do this.’

Or life throws up all sorts of problems.

When the doctor says ‘it’s bad news.’

When that bill comes in and you haven’t got the cash to meet it.

When that partner says ‘I don’t love you anymore’

When that child refuses to listen to reason and continues to head towards destruction.


And that’s why we turn our attention to this word. Help!


What’s the difference between God and you (or me)?

God never thinks he’s you (or me)!


In her book Help! Thanks! Wow! Annie LaMott speaks of three terrible truths…

1 We are so ruined

2 We are so loved

3 We are in charge of so little

Help! like Sorry is about recognising our limitations. Just as we all muck up, we all come up short. We might think we never need anybody’s help in any way. But life has a habit of proving that assumption wrong. We might say it’s almost as if life is designed in such a way that at some point we will need to turn to someone else for help. That may be another person. It may be God. 

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll look at this from a couple of different angles – helping one another and help from God. Today I want to look at this word help more generally.

But with help and indeed our next word please we are more directly considering prayer. Every faith has some form of prayer.

But I want to distinguish between two types of prayer.

Intercession and petition.

Intercession is about praying for another person or situation. When we pray for someone who is ill, a mission organisation we partner with or a situation we see on the news, that is intercession. That will be our focus when we turn to the word Please in a few weeks.

Help, or petition, is about prayer by me, for me.


And for what is left of this morning I want to use our story from Mark’s Gospel to highlight a couple of different types of petition. One relates to our circumstances, the other relates to ourselves.


We encounter both of these in the Gospel passage. It’s a story which contrasts the powerlessness of the disciples with the glory and power of Jesus. Had we started a few verses earlier we would have read about Jesus taking three of the disciples up a mountain where he was transfigured before them. His clothes shone, the disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus.

We’re not sure how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. They just did. Peter suggests making three tabernacles on that mountain. One for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Then they heard a voice from heaven. ‘This is my own dear Son. Listen to him.’

Ever had one of those occasions where you’ve been away on holiday, had a great time, you’re fresh, relaxed, ready for what comes next… only to discover that something has happened whilst you’ve been gone, you’re brought crashing down and it’s almost like you’ve never been away.

Something of that goes on here. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story and they all place it at precisely this point. Jesus and the disciples have the fantastic experience on the mountain, only to rejoin the others at the bottom, and they’re in the midst of an argument.

Jesus asks what’s going on and a desperate man steps forward. He speaks of how his son has a Spirit which renders him speechless, and causes him physical harm, with symptoms which seem quite similar to what we would call epilepsy. We see something of his desperation as he pours out his heart about how the condition has put his son in so much danger, throwing him into fire and water. As the boy his brought to Jesus another attack begins. The man had asked his disciples to help, but they had been unable to do anything. Then he asks ‘have pity on us and help us, if you possibly can.’

Jesus effectively says ‘if? What do you mean if? Anything is possible for the one who believes.’

Then the man responds with one of the great prayers in scripture.

I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.


It’s not as contradictory as it sounds. He has shown some faith by bringing the boy to Jesus. He may even have been aware of Jesus or his disciples helping others. But perhaps it felt too much to hope for that it could happen to him. And when the disciples had proved powerless to help, maybe that belief was just that little bit harder to find.

Jesus commands the Spirit to leave the boy and, in quite dramatic fashion, the boy is healed.

In that short snippet we have those two types of petition. The prayer to change the situation and another to change me.

There’s a situation in this father’s life he cannot handle. His son is ill and like any parent he cannot bear to watch his son suffer. He would give anything, do anything to change it. But there is nothing he can do. In this one, he is powerless. So he prays help, fix this.

And that has got to be one of the most primal prayers, amongst people of belief, unbelief and everything in between. I cannot face this alone. I cannot handle this or fix it. And when we give up trying to fix the unfixable, I am truly at the end of my rope, and we all fall back on the same prayer. Help!

Sometimes we can struggle with the idea of petition. Some of us find intercession easier. It’s easier to pray for other people sometimes, than it is to pray for ourselves. We don’t like to ask for help. We can see it as a sign of weakness. We should be able to handle this.

Another reason why we struggle might be because we think it’s selfish. God’s running a great big world. It feels trivial to ask for help for me, when the world has situations like we see in North Korea, Syria, Zimbabwe and the like. I’m reminded of the Dave Allen joke about why God prefers atheists… cos they’re not always asking him for stuff.


And yes it can be subject to abuse. We can start to imagine ideas of God being treated as a personal assistant whose job it is to order the world as we want it. We can be wary of the health, wealth, prosperity type preachers.

But that’s not the only way we might fear abusing it. Annie LaMott writes about a priest she knows who, she claims, spends too much time in the Old Testament who says that all prayers should include the hope that the children of one’s enemies end up living in the streets.

And such prayers do exist in the Bible. Take Psalm 28 (3, 4)

Do not drag me away with the wicked

With those who do evil

Who speak cordially with their neighbours

But harbour malice in their hearts

Repay them for their deeds

And for their evil work

Repay them for what their hands have done

And bring back on them what they deserve.


That’s part of the Bible!!


It is raw. We might not feel particularly comfortable with it. That’s not to say it’s a good attitude, one we should adopt. It’s not where we maybe would hope to linger. But it’s honest. Can you honestly say you’ve never hoped that someone who hurt you will get what they deserve?

And God can work with your honesty.

There are times when our prayers can feel selfish. Like when I am running late, cos I’ve been disorganised, and I ask God for the tubes and buses to run smoothly and the lights to be all on my side.

Or when I have a problem with another individual and I pray that God will change them or make the problem go away, rather than me have to face it.

Or I’ve taken on too much, or left too many things to the last minute and ask for strength to get it all done.

But not all petition is like that. Sometimes the problems are real, when it feels like you’re trying to fix the unfixable. When maybe you are trying to fix the unfixable.

On Thursday we had one of the most powerful and meaningful times of prayer I can remember in the circle just to my right. There was just a few of us. Each of us had come with something that was troubling us. From me with troubles we are having with the car to someone else needing reconciliation in their family. It was a muddled old time, but very meaningful and powerful.


It is healthy to realise that we don’t have to have it all together. You are not all powerful. Life is hard and we are vulnerable and there are times when all we can do is cry out Help! It is healthy to admit I cannot fix this. In so much of life, admitting our own weakness is the beginning of a way forward. It’s when we think we should be able to sort everything, can sort everything, and rely purely on our own resources that we run into trouble and can cause more harm that good. It can be tempting, if the only tool you have is hammer to see everything as a nail.


But there is another side to this. The man comes to Jesus and cries for help. But it’s not just change the situation. There is also the cry ‘change me.’

He admits his own weakness. He cannot fix this. But he admits he needs to change too. I do believe. Help my unbelief.

It isn’t wrong to ask God to help with the circumstances we face. But sometimes the help we need is within us.

Take the prayers I mentioned earlier. That prayer for the tubes and buses to run on time, might be a prayer to help me to develop the wisdom not to cram too much in, so that I leave on time and don’t have the stress of running late.

That problem I have with someone else. Rather than praying for the problem to go away, I might pray for the right words to say, or to help me understand what is going on in them and how I might help create circumstances that can lead to a positive outcome.

Or I pray that I might be liberated from the fear of what someone might think of me if I say no. I might pray for liberation of the inner slave driver who constantly demands that I cram one more thing into the day and doesn’t know how to say ‘no.’

They are all ways of answering the same prayer. It won’t always work that way, but sometimes the answer to our prayers comes in the form of learning to handle ourselves, rather than change the situation. God may, in his grace answer the first type of prayer, but that won’t be God’s end goal. We might want God to remake the world in our image, but he is more interested in changing us into the image of his son Jesus.

The father in the Gospel account prays that prayer. Yes, he prays for the situation to change. And that is good, welcome, right.

But he also is challenged to grow too. And he prays help me change. I believe, help my unbelief.

And that often will be the journey we have to make. We might wish there was another way of developing patience without delays, courage without dangers, forgiveness without offence, generosity without need, skill without discipline, endurance without tiredness, strength without resistance, virtue without temptation, and love without hard-to-love people. But there is no real growth without struggle.

But we do not have to do it alone. Remember God wants to meet us where we are, as we are. The cry for help is what keeps us in the game. The realisation that we are needy, weak, limited, imperfect, stressed, driven, troubled or frightened is just the beginning. Maybe the Beatles were onto something over 50 years ago. Maybe the loss of self-assurance and opening the door to another for help is a big step on the road to maturity. It is certainly one mark of a healthy, living spirituality.

Good, honest prayer reminds us that we are not in control and never were intended to be. We cannot fix everything. And we open ourselves to be helped by someone else or by God.

It might come in the altering of the situation, or we might find that through it we are changed. There is nothing to big or too small to call out to God or others to help. There is no reason to be hard on yourself for what you cannot solve alone. When we call out for help we are joining in God’s desire for us to grow and binds us to God far more than comfort ever will. And it is part of a healthy spirituality, because the help moments will be the place where we truly learn to trust God.


Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Sorry 2


Readings: Luke 4: 14-30; Ephesians 2: 11-22

In his book Christianity Rediscovered, American missionary Vincent Donovan told the story of his time living and working amongst the Masai people in Tanzania. The Masai told him about their God Engai. Engai preferred the rich and the healthy over the sick and poor. He loved and rewarded the good, he hated and punished the wicked. He loved the Masai more than other tribes, with a fierce, jealous, exclusive love. He provided everything they needed and protected them from hostile invaders, ensuring victory in war.

The more Donovan listened, the more he noticed similarities between their story and much of the story of Israel as we read it in our Old Testament. He thought this might be a good way to introduce his God to them. So he told them about the Israelite people, famous the world over for preserving the knowledge of the one true God. They were his exclusive possession.

But their God was not just a tribal deity. He had created and ruled of the whole universe.

However they tried to restrict him, to make him their God and theirs alone. And by doing so they were making him less than he really was. They needed to free him to be a God for everyone.

Like Israel, Donovan continued, everyone knew how devout the Masai were in following Engai. But perhaps, like them, by restricting him in his partiality to the Masai, they were making him less than he was. Perhaps, rather than the god they were worshipping they should seek the God of every tribe and nation, who loves rich and poor, sick and healthy, good and evil alike. He waited to see how they would respond.


Eventually one of the tribal elders spoke up. ‘This story of Israel, does it speak only to the Masai? Or does it speak also to you? Has your tribe found this God?’

Donovan was about to reply, then his mind suddenly filled with church services in which fervent prayer went up asking ‘Almighty God’ to bless their side and give them victory in war. Of sermons in which God had seemed to be on the side of the good, industrious, entrepreneurial, clean and rich, often at the expense of the bad, lazy, dirty, thieving people, which was how those on welfare or without jobs were often described, at least implicitly. The God who helped those who helped themselves.

Ashamed, Donovan found himself answering ‘No, we haven’t found him either. My tribe hasn’t known him. For us too he is the unknown God. Let’s search for him together. Maybe together we’ll find him.’


We’ve been considering different phases or seasons of a healthy spiritual life. Each phase or season has been assigned a word. Last time out we began looking at the 4th word. Sorry.

Today we are told of the importance of paying attention to our bodies. We are encouraged to examine ourselves regularly. To check that things are as they should be and to seek help if they’re not.

But self-examination is a healthy part of spirituality too. That’s what we’re thinking about with this word ‘sorry.’ It’s about being honest with yourself. Owning your own stuff. We’re all human. We’re none of us perfect. We all get it wrong sometimes. We might do so in different ways, to different degrees, in different circumstances. But we all do it. We all mess up.

We can be very good at justifying ourselves.

I only said that because.

I wouldn’t have done that if.

Sorry is about setting down all the buts, ifs and maybes. I’m going to name it. To myself. To God. Perhaps to someone else I can trust, who will graciously walk me through it.


Of course healthy honesty has another side. It’s possible to be your own worst critic. Particularly in a faith tradition which sees humility as a virtue. There’s a kind of false humility that tells ourselves that we are worse than we really are. We can be burdened by an unnecessary or false guilt. Expectations that you place on yourself, or think others, maybe even God place upon you. And they’re neither reasonable not true.

Jesus says the truth shall set us free. An overactive conscience and an overly self-critical spirit might be amongst the things we need to be freed from. We might need permission to let go of them. We might need to hear the Spirit say ‘let me take that.’ That then clears the way to turn our attention to the forgiveness and healing we really need, rather than beating ourselves up over unnecessary things.

Those two words forgiveness and healing are at the heart of what makes this word ‘sorry’, hard as it is, a healthy component of our spirituality. God doesn’t ask us to examine ourselves, to be honest and name the damaging, destructive, broken parts of our lives just as we can wallow in them and feel bad and worthless.

God longs us to see ourselves as we truly are. Loved and precious in his sight. Yet still capable of messing up. And when we do, God longs to forgive us, to heal us, to set us free. To extend his grace to us.

That is good news.

Or it should be.

But what about when God wants to extend the same grace and mercy we receive to others?

Not just the good, the worthy, the deserving, the likeable.

What about those we would consider our enemies?


This week we enter the season of remembrance. We recognise that human destructiveness and sinfulness doesn’t just erect barriers between us and God, but between us. And not just on the big, global stage, but in our relationships with each other. And although we might not think of it in such blunt terms as the Masai in Christianity Rediscovered, we can want a God who is on our side and against them.


There’s a couple of places where we encounter what I’m talking about in the Bible. There’s actually a lot more but I’ll limit myself to a couple of examples. One of the from the Old Testament and one from the New.

In the Old Testament we have the story of Jonah. God sends him to Nineveh. The heart of enemy Assyrian territory. Nineveh had a notorious reputation for being wicked and violent. And they were Israel’s enemies. Jonah tries to run away in the opposite direction. But after a wild adventure involving a great storm and a big fish, Jonah ends up going to Nineveh. And his mission is successful. Nineveh repents. They own their wrong, and confess it.

Which, maybe should be the happy ending. They all lived happily ever after.

But it isn’t. Jonah ends with a really grumpy prophet. It turns out it wasn’t fear of the evil empire that caused him to run away. It was fear of how a merciful God might react to Nineveh.

He might forgive them.

The story ends with a prophet angry at God for extending the same grace and mercy to them as God had extended to Jonah.

We encounter the same thing in the story of the prodigal son. Having wasted his inheritance the younger son comes to his senses and returns home where is he welcomed by the father.

Again we might think it should be the happy ending. But it’s not.

The story ends in that same, open-ended way, outside the party, with the father begging the elder brother to come in and join the festivities. The elder brother finds it hard to accept the grace and mercy offered to his younger sibling.

Is there a bit of an elder brother, or a Jonah in us?


Part of the honesty that comes with self-examination is about recognising the barriers we erect, the hostility we feel towards others, however deeply we bury it and hide it.


That’s what is coming to the surface in the account of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth. This scene occurs in each of the first three Gospels, but Matthew and Mark record it later in Jesus’ ministry than Luke does.

Luke suggests that Jesus has been active for some time. He includes a couple of sentences about Jesus travelling around Galilee, teaching in the synagogues. Jesus refers to stuff he has been doing in Capernaum. But this is the first specific public event Luke describes. If we only had Luke’s Gospel we wouldn’t know Jesus was talking about when he refers to stuff he did in Capernaum.


Why does Luke do this?

Well it’s his way of announcing who Jesus is and what he’s about. In the opening part of Luke’s Gospel he builds up a lot of Messianic expectation. Last week, for example, at Theo’s dedication service, we read about a guy called Simeon, who was waiting for the consolation of Israel, who declared Jesus to be the source of God’s salvation and the glory of your people Israel. Those are all Messianic references.

But he also refers to Jesus as a light to the Gentiles.

So what, you might ask? Why is that relevant?

Well, as the Old Testament progresses there are two streams of thought emerging side by side. One was very much like Vincent Donovan described to the Masai. We might call the first the Particular. It’s basically saying that God was Israel’s God. No-one else’s. He was on their side against the world.

But there was another stream of thought. One which was more universal in its approach. God had created and rules the whole world. And God loves the whole world and wanted to rescue the whole world. They didn’t deny Israel’s importance. Israel had a vital role to play in making this God known to the world.

But God’s dream and vision for his world was much wider than Israel. It encompassed his whole creation.

So you gets pictures like Isaiah’s vision of the nations of the world flocking to Jerusalem and to the temple to worship the true God and recognise that Israel’s God was the one, true God.

Those who believed the particular view would have said ‘yes, but we’ll still be the boss. The gentiles will serve us.

Others were somewhat less liberal. They claimed ‘God had created Gentiles to be fuel for the fires of hell.’


In a climate where they were dominated by hated, foreign, imperial powers, who worshipped other gods, and they were looking for someone to rescue and liberate them, guess which of these two views was more popular? It’s fairly understandable, really.

What does Jesus do that offends them so much they actually want to kill him?

There are a couple of things which we don’t know, or which are slightly ambiguous in the passage.


We don’t know whether Jesus chose the passage which he read, or whether it was a selected reading for that day. The synagogues didn’t have official clergy, but any man who felt they had something to share and whom the leader deemed appropriate could be offered the chance. Jesus is gaining a reputation in Galilee and Nazareth is the town where he grew up.


The second ambiguous feature of the story concerns the initial response to Jesus. As the church Good News Bibles puts it, the listen to Jesus read, he sits down and they ‘were all well impressed with him and marvelled at the eloquent words he spoke.’ And they begin to ask ‘is that not Joseph’s boy?

It is a little odd why they would be so impressed because apart from reading a few verses from Isaiah, he has only uttered one sentence. ‘This passage of scripture has come true today as you have heard it read.’ Jesus seems to have, as we might say, the crowd eating out of his hands, then he turns on them and makes them really angry.


However the Greek is a bit more ambiguous. The Greek says they bore witness to him, marvelled at the gracious words coming out of his mouth and asked is this not Joseph’s son? It’s that word gracious that’s important here.


In fairness the ‘bore witness’ bit tends to be quite positive. But the rest of it is quite ambiguous. Even the phrase ‘isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ may be a reference to the questionable circumstances of their marriage and of Jesus’ birth.


But there is another way of looking at this. There’s a crime writer from Northern Ireland called Colin Bateman, whose books I love. I was reading one of his books this week and in it the main character is someone who returns to the country after living in England for a long time. It speaks of how he lived for longer in England than Northern Ireland and though it had hardly softened his accent, it had smoothed out his prejudices, his history and his culture.

Now in the 20+ years my accent has softened a lot. But although I was always probably a bit contrary that way, the second half of that is quite true. My politics has changed, my theology has changed, I do see a lot of things differently to people who never left. There’s a whole host of reasons for that, but one of them distance. You do just see stuff differently when you’re not there. I’m not saying that makes me better than them, it’s just how it is.

So I try to stay out of political discussions when I go back to Northern Ireland. But on occasions when I have ventured an alternative viewpoint, I’ve been told, ‘you’ve forgotten where you’ve come from. You’ve forgotten what it was like.’


I could imagine if I was speaking publicly on the Woodstock Road where I grew up, someone might say ‘is that not Lila’s son? He didn’t learn that kind of nonsense round here!’

Now what’s that got to do with Jesus in Nazareth?

Nazareth had a reputation for being quite a radical place. It’s name came from the word from branch in Isaiah 11: 1, which speaks of a branches growing out of the cut down stump of Jesse, which is often seen as one of the prophecies about a coming Messiah.

When they say they marvelled at Jesus gracious words, what do they mean. It could mean they were impressed by him, but maybe they were just surprised… and not in a good way. For let’s look at what Jesus does. He finds the relevant spot in Isaiah and begins to read…

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

It’s from Isaiah 61. It was again seen as quite Messianic. It referred to God setting everything right, back the way he had intended all along.

So far, so good.

But then Jesus rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and sits down.

So what?

Well… Jesus has stopped mid-sentence.

For Isaiah goes on to say ‘and the day of vengeance of our God.’


It’s the fact that Jesus leaves out the vengeance bits that leaves them surprised by his gracious tone. It’s not a viewpoint which would have been especially popular round Nazareth. There might have been a sense of ‘fancy Joseph’s boy coming out with that kind of stuff.’


Then Jesus goes on to tell two stories from the time of Elijah and Elisha in which the main characters who had received God’s blessing weren’t found in Israel, but amongst their enemies. They wants wrath, vengeance and destruction. Whereas Jesus is saying God wants to bring his love and mercy to everyone. God was inviting everyone to know his grace, his love, his freedom…

…including the very people they had come to hate.

It’s that same reasoning that is in the background of Paul’s writing to the followers of Jesus at Ephesus. He speaks of Jesus coming to proclaim peace to those who were far away and to those who were near. It was an image taken from not just the Jerusalem temple, but any temples in the ancient world.

The Jewish temple was arranged as a series of courts, working from those who were considered the least worthy, through to those considered the most worthy and acceptable to God. So it started with a court for the Gentiles, then one for the women, then one for the men, then one for the priests and eventually to the Holy of holies. But they all had one thing in common. None of them had direct access to God.


Paul says Jesus came to invite us all into relationship with him. That there was no-one beyond redemption. He invited those who were considered the least worthy, and those who might be considered the most worthy. Through the same Spirit we are all invited to access the one God.


There was a 19th Century Methodist minister, Father Taylor of Boston who used to say ‘there is just enough room for all the people in the world; but there is no room for the fences which separate them.’

God is not interested in how we choose to divide ourselves one from another. Whatever barrier we wish to erect, Jesus has come to tear the thing down.


There is a story told, probably apocryphal, but it makes a good point, of a first world war of a soldier who died and his colleagues sought to have him buried in the grounds of a nearby Catholic church. But the priest said that since the man was not a baptised Catholic he would not be allowed to be buried on the consecrated ground. Instead the priest showed them a nice spot just the other side of the cemetery wall where they could bury him. Reluctantly the agreed. They came by the next day to lay some flowers but could not find the spot. They were convinced they knew where they had buried him so they went to see the priest. He said ‘I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking about how I had excluded your friend. So during the night, I got up and moved the fence.’


That’s what God was in the business of doing. Tearing down the fences between us and him and us and each other.

It’s not that God has no interest in our diversity. God likes diversity. He made lots of it.

It’s just that he’s not prepared to allow any of the labels we apply to get in the way of us and him. Each of us has our own unique mix of what I termed last time as the HPTMTU. God came to meet you in yours. And he comes to meet each of us in our own.

God’s not in the business of consulting us as to whom he extends mercy. We don’t get to limit God’s mercy and part of our self-examination is to wake up to where we even try.


And there is nowhere where we are reminded of this more than at this table. Where we are welcomed by one God, whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, wherever our journey has taken us. Where we get to eat of one bread and drink of one cup. For we are invited to this table by the one Saviour whose body was broken for each of us, whose blood was shed for each one of us.

Posted in One offs

No Job Too Small


Reading: John 2: 1-11

A few years ago we had a suspected gas leak at our house and had to call out the gas emergency people. It wasn’t a huge problem, but it was big enough for them to shut down all our gas until an engineer could have a proper look and carry out any necessary repairs. Thankfully that was only for one night, albeit quite a cold one as I recall.

The guy who showed up to do the work wore a t-shirt which advertised his company, and on the shirt was a little slogan. I don’t know if it’s the same over in the States, but over here this is a slogan quite a lot of plumbers, gardeners, builders and the like will use. It said ‘No job too small.’

Why do so many of these companies have that identical strap line? No Job Too Small. Have they used all their creative energy thinking up a witty name for their company? If you have to say ‘no job too small’ it’s because clearly there are some jobs which people will think are too small.

I know this to be true. I am rubbish at DIY and really have no great desire to get any better. My idea of DIY is making the phone call myself. It’s much cheaper and less stressful just to make the phone call before I’ve made matters worse.

But even people like me will look at some jobs and think ‘you can’t call someone out for that.’ We might think it’s not worth the cost. The ‘call out fee doesn’t justify it.

But I think there’s a fair amount of pride. The sense that ‘I really ought to be able to sort this out for myself.’ I’m worried about another bloke seeing I can’t do it. I don’t want him joking about ‘what kind of idiot can’t handle that?’ when they’re in the pub spending the tip I’ve just given them!

We may also think they would prefer to be spending their time on proper jobs, making proper money rather than on my petty little task. I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my house this means that often little jobs will remain undone, probably really annoying me, and Mrs Jackson, until something bigger comes along. Something which is worth getting someone in. Then, when I’ve got them, I might try the ‘oh, whilst you’re here, how much extra would you charge to take a look at this’, as if the thought has just occurred.


I think of that when I read of Jesus turning water into wine. John says ‘this was the first of the miraculous signs that Jesus performed, which revealed his glory, and caused his disciples to put their faith in him.’

Your chaplain tells me that last time he spoke to you about who Jesus was. Well one of the key things we believe about Jesus is that he shows us what God’s like. If you want to know what God’s like, look at Jesus.

That’s clearest in John’s Gospel. The Gospels have lots of stories about Jesus doing miracles. But John doesn’t call them miracles. He calls them signs. John wants us to know, when he tells a story about something Jesus did, he is unpacking something of who Jesus is, and what God is like. People who know a lot more about John’s Gospel than me tell me that there are seven signs. Turning water to wine was the first.

Now I don’t know about you, but if I had been in that position I can’t help but think I’d want the first one to make a statement, to lay down a marker. Yet that’s not what seems to happen. Compared with some of the other stories turning water into wine seems trivial. I can imagine years later someone asking John, ‘what made you realise who Jesus was and what God was like’ I can see them getting it as he spoke of healing an official’s son from a distance, curing an invalid who hadn’t walked in 38 years, giving sight to a man born blind, walking on water or raising Lazarus from the dead. But, and I hope this doesn’t sound too flippant, ‘one day we went to a wedding, the wine ran out, and Jesus sorted it’ just doesn’t seem that spectacular.

I think that’s why people who write about Jesus always spend a huge chunk of their explanation working out why Jesus gets involved in the first place. They talk about how in their culture running out of wine would have brought great shame on the family, or been a bad sign for the marriage ahead.

Others assume that Mary, Jesus mother, had some responsibility for this wedding. That’s why she gets involved when they run out of wine. Others suggest that Jesus himself may have had some such responsibility. There is no mention of Joseph, so the thinking goes he might have died by now, so Jesus, the eldest son, was being asked to assume family responsibilities.

Still others suggest that the reason Mary went to Jesus was because she saw it as somehow Jesus’ fault that they’d ran out of wine. The wedding comes just after Jesus calls his first 5 disciples. So, the theory goes, part of the problem was that Jesus turned up with 5 extra guests.

Which, if you think about it, hardly paints the disciples in the most flattering of lights!!

Some, none or all of the above might contain some truth. But one thing they all have in common is that they’re grasping for some rationale why Jesus would get involved in something like this.

And they don’t so the same with other miracles.

No-one asks why Jesus heals a leper or gives sight to a blind person. If we accept that Jesus does miracles then it’s taken for granted that those are very Jesus-ey things to do.

But turning water into wine? It’s not really in the same league.

Some reservations may be to do with modern attitudes to alcohol. Some people may feel a little more comfortable if Jesus had told Mary that if they had run out of wine it’s probably cos they’ve already had enough. The comments of the master of ceremonies at the end of our reading might suggest they’d already enjoyed a fair amount.

But perhaps the discomfort is rooted in something more basic. Might it be true that we question whether the job is just too small for God to bother with? It’s possible that what we’re really asking ‘if God is really interested in stuff like how much wine there is at a wedding, can this God be interested in me, in the smallness and the details of me and my problems?’

Just as I might not want to hassle a handyman with a job I think would be too small for him to be bothered about. We live in a planet that’s a tiny dot in a vast cosmos, and there are about 7bn people currently living on our planet. So why should God be interested in me, in the details of my life, in my problems?

We can break things up into the type of things God would do, and the kind of things God would be interested in. We might call them God size projects. Then there’s the other stuff.

Once you accept that there is a God, not necessarily a Christian one, just a God, and once you accept that all the big words which people use to describe God are true, then things like making the world, or the Exodus, or raising the dead, or healing the sick, they’re not such a dig deal. We might not understand them, but they’re just kind of thing God does.

But it’s another thing altogether to believe that this God might be interested in the details of our lives and in working in those as well.


There can be a number of reasons for that. I don’t know how shameful it would have been for a first century Jewish family to run out of wine. But it does highlight that there are some things which are extremely important to us, but which other people in other times, places, or even around us, simply would not recognise as an issue. There are some things I struggle with, that others wouldn’t consider a problem. It’ll be the same as you.

Like my decision about whether or not to call in the workman, we can have this sense that we ought to be able to handle this ourselves. It’s not a Godsize thing. It might even be a little embarrassing to admit we have a problem with things that other people seemingly take in their stride.

We can quite simply think that our problem is just too small for God to be interested. I flick on the news, and see stuff all over the world. This week I have spent quite a lot of time by the bed of someone who is dying. I see images of natural disasters, or even see guys who sleep out the back of my church.

And it puts a lot of the worries of my life in perspective. And it can feel selfish bringing those things to God. Surely God has enough on his plate without worrying about whatever I was going to ask? Can my concerns feel trivial, like coming to him at a party where everyone’s had their fill, and saying ‘they’ve no more wine?’

Sometimes we do all we can without ever bringing it to God. We don’t want to bother him with little things that no-one else would even consider important, or with things on which we really ought to be able to get a handle. Or perhaps we act like we have a limited number of ‘God tokens’ – spend them and they’re gone. If you ask God for help in something now that’s one less thing for which you can ask him for help later.

But it can be easy to fall into the trap of it’s only when we fail, when the problem becomes sufficiently Godsize, that we involve him. In fact it’s only when it’s sufficiently big we involve anyone.

I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons John uses this story and uses it early on is because it acts like a sort of business card for God with the words ‘No Job Too Small’ written in big letters across it.

Would the world have been any different if Jesus had not turned water into wine – probably not.

From an outsiders standpoint, it was perhaps more trivial a need than that of the leper, the demon possessed and all the others he would encounter. Yet clearly what mattered to the people at the wedding, mattered to him.

You guys, as professional sportsmen know the details matter. I’ve played a bit of sport in my time. But it’s at such a low level that a minor issue is unlikely to affect an already bad performance that much. But you guys know that if something is not quite right, the most minor, marginal things can have a big impact and people notice.

Well if we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus. And in Jesus we see that God cares about the details. If it matters to you, it matters to God. Jesus reveals a God who gets involved in the detail simply because he is asked and given the space to do it. God’s care for the big stuff is founded in his care about the detail.

When I was growing up I was told ‘God provides for your needs, not your greeds’. And I believe that. But it can conjure up images of a kind of welfare type God, assessing what we really need, before helping us. It can leave us with the impression of grudging God which is very different to what we see here.

For when Jesus acts he doesn’t do it grudgingly. He doesn’t say they’ve had enough, click his fingers and give them enough for one last toast before they hit the road. Even allowing for the fact that weddings like these were whole village affairs no-one can tell me that between 120 and 180 gallons of top quality wine was really that necessary.

It wasn’t needed, it certainly didn’t need to be better than what they already had, but just as the story reveals a God for whom nothing is too small, so it reveals a God who is not grudging but generous. He’s a God who’s not only interested in the big things of the universe, but who loves us enough to be involved in the detail.

When you love someone the details matter.


I don’t know why God doesn’t always turn the water into wine, why we can call out to him about things which trouble us and things don’t always happen as we anticipate or want, I don’t understand that anymore than I understand why terrible things happen on a grand scale.

But I do believe in a God who does not stand aloof or indifferent to us. Cos Jesus showed us that. Maybe turning water into wine at an ordinary village wedding was a statement. Cos by getting involved in the smallness of a village wedding of a nameless couple simply because he is asked Jesus reveals a God who is interested in the things that matter to us. But if we insist on doing it all ourselves and refuse to invite him into our situations we might miss him completely.

Maybe like Mary we need to simply to invite him into our situations, to create the space for him to act, however trivial our concerns might seem. The God revealed in Jesus is not a grudging God. He’s a God who gives his very self for us. A God who loves us enough to care about the detail. And a God for whom no job is too small.


This is the text of a sermon delivered at the chapel service for the Cleveland Browns NFL team and staff, on their visit to London for a match against the Minnesota Vikings.


Posted in One offs

A Divine Gift of Light: Sermon for the Dedication of Theo Artus

gift from God

Reading: Luke 2: 22-38

The life of ministry can sometimes be quite tough. I might sometimes joke about only working one day a week, or talk of when I had a ‘proper job’ (it’s ok when I do it). But you do have to deal with and be with others as they deal with some difficult stuff. I’m not complaining. Cos it can also be a life which offers moments of huge blessing.


Number one in my ministry, and I doubt this will ever be topped, was my first baptism. Cos I got to baptise my wife, Jools.

Another one that is right up there was when I conducted my niece’s wedding.

Dedications are always precious, wonderful occasions. In this church they are becoming rather regular. We’ve had 5 babies born to people who worshipped in this church in little over a year. I sometimes joke with Lin and Frankie about what they were putting in the water in 4U.

It’s always a real joy to conduct a baby or blessing or dedication. But today is that little bit extra special, as I get to speak at my Godson’s Dedication.

I have to admit Theo has been a source of concern great to me. When Naomi told us she was pregnant, way back summer before last, it was several months before we were able to tell anyone. I lived those few months in terror of saying something which would inadvertently let the secret out.

As the pregnancy wore on, Sunday by Sunday, as Naomi came into this building, I really felt for someone as petite as Naomi carrying around what seemed like a relatively huge bump!

I came across a story this week about a little girl who told her classmates she was never having kids and when she was asked why she said ‘cos I’m told they take 9 months to download.’

But in different ways those months seemed to take forever, yet also shot by.

Then, once you named him, and knowing that, like me, Jon is an Arsenal fan, I lived in terror that Theo’s namesake, Walcott, would leave the Emirates… and sign for Tottenham. Had that happened, Jon, you and I might have wished you’d called him Ragnar, as you kept telling Naomi you were going to do!

What I have to say today would have looked quite different if you had!

Nevertheless, Theodore Luke Norville Artus is well named. I know Theo’s names were very important to you. Norville is an old Artus family name, Anglo Saxon in origin, meaning from the North. Well, I suppose he was born in North London.


But it’s his first name, Theodore, which lets us know how far North we’re talking of here. For the name Theodore means ‘gift from God.’

There’s a story of a little boy whose mum gave birth to a new baby boy. One day as his new brother was screaming the house down, the boy stood over him and said ‘where did we get him?’ His mother said ‘he came from heaven’ to which the boy replied ‘I see now why they threw him out!’

I’m sure that in the last seven months there have been one or two moments where you might have been tempted to think that was true of your divine gift. Perhaps when you had to get out in the car and drive him around trying to get him off to sleep.


Your lives have probably changed beyond recognition. But I have no doubt that Theo is considered a true gift from the divine. Theo has been brought here this morning because we recognise him as a wonderful gift from God and today is about giving thanks for him.

Today you are doing something that people have done for thousands of years. Right back into Bible times. Exactly what we do will be very different to what they did back then, but it was a similar ides. We read the account of when Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, did just that. They brought Jesus to the temple, giving thanks for the gift of their son, and he was blessed, and brought blessing to an old man called Simeon.

Theo is precious to you, his parents, his grandparents, wider family and friends. But Theo is also precious to God. So precious are children to Jesus that he reserved some of his rather less gentle, meek, mild comments for those who would cause them harm. Jesus said it would better for those who cause such harm to have a great big millstone hung round their neck and flung into the sea.

And, in life and ministry, Jesus showed us God’s love in his attitude to children. Today churches and indeed huge chunks of wider society like to consider themselves child or family friendly. Sometimes we manage it, sometimes we don’t. But we try.

In the first Century world to which Jesus came, and even in first century Palestine where Jesus was brought up, that would not have been true. Children were not seen as important. Certainly not enough to bother a travelling rabbi who might only be around for a very short period.

That’s why in the story when people bring the children to Jesus, the disciples tried to send him away. They were trying to do Jesus a favour. He had important work to be doing. He could do without these little ones in the way, with all the racket they make and distraction they cause. Children, they thought, would not be important to someone like Jesus.

How wrong they were, for Jesus rebuked not the parents, nor the children, but the disciples who tried to get in the way. Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them. Because to Jesus they were not just welcome, but precious, worthy of his love, care and attention.

So in the name Theodore, you are recognising that your son is a gift from God.


But his other name is also important. The name Luke means giver of light. I chose that particular passage from Luke because it speaks of Jesus being a light.

I have to say, I only get to see little glimpses of it, but thanks to the wonder of social media Theo has brought a lot of lightness into our lives at the manse.

Whether it be the expression he pulled when you started him on solids and he first tasted avocado, the sheer concentration with which he followed the cake as Jon lifted it from the plate to his mouth, or the wide eyed wonder with which he was watching Tipping Point on Grandad’s knee.

I don’t know whether to say sorry or thanks, Theo, but you’ve given your Godparents a lot of laughs. And I’m sure they’re nothing compared with the joy you’ve brought to your family.

But there are other ways in which we can bring light. One meaning might be to reveal or teach us stuff we never knew. As first-time parents, Jon and Naomi, I am sure it has been a steep learning curve. There will be many lessons Theo has taught you already. For example I know Naomi now knows not the wear a clean, white dressing gown when changing him, after an incident involving what can only be termed ‘projectile poohing.’

That’s another high point of ministry. I’ll probably never have cause to say ‘projectile pooh’ in a sermon ever again.

And there will be days to come, and they’re probably not too far away, when you will need Theo to guide you through whatever the latest piece of technology is, or of he’ll volunteer information on how sad you’ve become and how far behind the latest fashions you have fallen.

In time, I hope he grows in wisdom and understanding, so that life, words and actions bring light and hope to others. Today does not make Theo a Christian. That is a decision we cannot make for him and will be for him to make in the years ahead. And I do pray he will discover just how loved he is by God, and learn to follow Jesus.

But for now, Theo is dependent on us, and especially to you, his parents and family, to bring that kind of light, wisdom and understanding to him. For now his family, particularly his parents and grandparents will be the fount of all wisdom. There will come a time, during the ‘why’ phase, when you might wish that was not the case, but it doesn’t last that long, so enjoy it whilst you can.

And that’s why today we had all those promises. We call this the Dedication of Theo Artus, but unlike Theo, the title of this rite of passage is not well named. For Theo doesn’t dedicate himself to anyone or anything. It was his parents, family, Godparents who did that.

In this regard, Theo, the gift from God, comes with strings attached. Because he comes to as one who needs guidance through life. As John said in the introduction to the act of dedication, it is a dangerous world that Theo has been born into. And, try as we might, we cannot insulate him from all of that. But we can do our best to guide him in right paths. Whether Theo is surrounded with goodness, love and respect and comes to a knowledge of all that is good and true, is, in large measure, down to us.

But to do that, we need to listen to him and learn from him. I want to quote one verse from the Proverbs, often used at occasions like this.

Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. (Proverbs 22:6)


Often the way this verse is expounded, is about the parental obligation to pass on faith and good values to their children. In part that’s true. But that’s not entirely what the verse is about. The Hebrew talks about training up a child according to his bent.

I’ve a friend who, when his wife was pregnant with his first child, said that if he (they knew it was a boy by that stage) grew up with his mum’s artistic abilities and his dad’s hand-eye co-ordination, he would be awesome. But if it worked the other way round… on dear.

Theo will undoubtedly pick up many things from his parents. There is plenty of good material for him to be going at. He may turn out to be more like one of you, or a mix of both.

But he will still be his own, unique self. With his own personality, character traits, gifts, abilities, dreams and callings. And that is a big part of what Proverbs is talking about.

You see often parents have hopes and aspirations for their children. That’s good. But children don’t always share them. They have other hopes and dreams. Or parents can have expectations, which the child feels unable to meet, or has no real longing to meet. Their bent is in a different direction. And it can be a great source of tension.

This piece of wisdom, from thousands of years ago, in a different culture, one which didn’t prize children, has much to teach us. It tells us guide your children… but also listen to them. Be careful that we’re nurturing the person they were created to be, rather than what we thought we were creating them to be.


I’m sure, Jon and Naomi, you will do your absolute best to be awesome parents. But equally don’t beat yourself up when you get stuff wrong. It’s part of being human. There is only one perfect parent. Our heavenly father. Down here, there is no such thing as the perfect parent. They do not exist.

I heard this week about a minister who, when he first started in ministry was newly married with no kids. He launched a parenting class in his church and called it 10 Commandments for Biblical Parenting. 

Then he had a kid and rewrote the course, calling it 10 Hints for Good Parenting.

Then he had a second child and he rewrote the course again. This time it was Tentative Suggestions for Fellow Strugglers.

After the third child he ditched the course.


You will make mistakes and you will need to forgive yourselves and each other. There will be times when it is a struggle to live up to the promises you have made.


But in that we can learn once more from Theo. We can allow him to be a light to us. Because lovely as he is, Theo can’t really do much right now. He can’t earn your love. Theo relies on you to love him unconditionally. You don’t love him because of who he is or what he can do. You love him just because. And you will love him in years to come when he gets stuff wrong. And you will love him, even through gritted teeth, in days to come when he is a right little so-and-so.

The way he relies on and receives your love mirrors how we relate to our Heavenly Father. For in the same way God will continue loving you when you get it wrong. And he will, if you let him, strengthen you and guide you, as you seek to surround Theo with goodness, love and respect, with all that is good and true. As we each seek to keep the promises we have made to God and to the lovely divine gift he has brought into our lives.


Theo Luke Norville Artus. May God bless you and keep you. May we truly seek to be a blessing to you and bring light into your life, and may we receive the light and guidance that you and you alone can bring to our lives. If we do that, then we will truly recognise you as God’s good gift to us.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Sorry Part One

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Readings: Psalm 32; 1 John 1: 5-10

There’s a story told about Frederick II, or Frederick the Great, who was King of Prussia in the 18th Century. Freddie considered himself an enlightened king. For example he took an interest in how prisoners were treated. Once he visited a jail in Berlin. He was escorted on a walk amongst the prisoners. One by one, the prisoners protested their innocence of the crimes for which they’d been convicted.

Only one prisoner remained silent, which made Frederick curious. So he asked him, “Why are you here?”

“Armed robbery, your majesty,” came the reply.

“And are you guilty?” asked the King

“Oh yes” said the prisoner. “totally, your majesty. I deserve all I get.”

At this Frederick said, “Warden, release this guilty wretch at once. I will not have him here in jail corrupting all the splendid innocent people who have to live here.”

I find something of that in our readings this morning. Psalm 32 talks of feeling trapped and wasting away, covering their guilt, clinging on to their innocence, until owning up and naming their wrong helps them find freedom. 1 John speaks about us deceiving ourselves if we protest our innocence. We imprison ourselves with our deceit. Whereas real freedom and forgiveness begin with confession.

Traditionally Psalm 32 is one of two Psalms linked to the story of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba, which ultimately led to David organising to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle. If you don’t know the story you can read it for yourself in 2 Samuel 11 & 12.

David was prepared to go to huge lengths to cover up what he’d done. However if the link between the Psalm and the story is accurate, that’s where we catch a glimpse of what was going on within David. We see that it was eating away at him. It was affecting him mentally, spiritually, physically even.

Which is hardly surprising. We are a complex mix of body, mind and spirit, all connected together. It is normal for something which adversely affects one part to spill over into the others.

He doesn’t mention how he moved from cover-up to confession between verses 4 and 5. But it is very human. It’s only when David is challenged by the prophet Nathan and it becomes clear he’s been found out, that David confesses. And confession doesn’t miraculously sort everything out neatly. Consequences continue to flow from David’s actions. It affects the rest of his time as king. In fact the ripples are felt throughout much of the rest of Israel’s story.

But confession paves the way for him to receive and experience God’s forgiveness and his healing can begin, to the extent that he comes to describe himself as ‘blessed.’

I’m continuing in our time considering the seasons or phases of the spiritual life through the words on the screen behind me. We started with the word ‘Here.’ God wants to encounter us here and now, as we are. Then we looked at the word ‘O’, which speaks of awe, wonder, praise. In the last few weeks we have considered the word Thanks. That although we like to think of ourselves as independent, as being able to look after ourselves, we’re reliant on other people, situations, and on God. Even in moments of trial and trouble, we can discover moments or experiences of grace. A posture of thankfulness or gratitude is healthy and not just for our spiritual life.

All three of the words so far have been very upbeat and positive. And I pray that you will have seasons in life when God feels close, when you experience awe and wonder, and learn to notice moments of grace and grow in thankfulness.

But life is a not always lived in that bright summery season. Not all of life is lived in those places of awe and wonder. Emotional, mental or spiritual mountaintops are great to places to visit, but life’s not designed for us to stay there. As I said last week, a faith that forces you to live in denial is no good to anyone.

But for most of us, most of the time, real growth won’t happen there. Most new beginnings start in the more challenging seasons, or phases, with more challenging words. This morning we turn to what, if Elton John is to be believed, is the hardest word.



Be it sports stars expressing their regret when they’re caught drink driving, celebrities apologising when they’re caught saying something they shouldn’t on social media, politicians apologising over expenses issues, apologies are actually quite fashionable. This week the Baptist Union Council will reflect on 10 years since the Apology for Baptist participation in the slave trade.


But sorry is a word which can be cheapened through overuse. When we lived in Alvechurch and I worked in Birmingham, I travelled to and from work on the Redditch to Lichfield line. It was nicknamed the Misery Line. With good reason. Day by day I would stand on a station platform, staring at the departures board, watching my train go from on time, to 4 minutes late, to 6 minutes, 9 minutes, then eventually the message would come. They were extremely sorry for my delay and the inconvenience caused. Which was nice. It was hard to believe they were that gutted, when the train was late again next day, and the day after and the day after that. Just as I find it hard to believe that the Dept of Transport is really sorry for your delay as suggested by the sign, which appears on a motorway after you’ve inched past 30 miles of contraflow and the only sign of any work has been an abandoned wheelbarrow on the hard shoulder.

At a smaller level we all know people who are constantly apologising. I’ve been told that I can be a bit like that. If that’s how you’ve found me, erm, sorry. Actually I know I’m affected by a peculiarly British disease. Recently I was overcharged for some shopping. I knew I was right, but still began the exchange with the shop assistant by saying ‘I’m really sorry, but…’ Why am I apologising?

And the truth is, a lot of apologies are not really apologies. I’m on pretty thin ice here. I’m sure there are times when I’ve done some of these things. But when someone says ‘I can only apologise’ that’s not really an apology.

There are other quite common ‘sorry fails’

I’m sorry… IF (I offended you, you took it the wrong way). It sounds like you’re sorry, but you’re really shifting the blame. Maybe if you were more mature, less touchy, we wouldn’t have a problem. It’s not what I said. It’s your fault you got offended. Sometimes there’s a truth in that, but often it’s a way of avoiding blame for something we’ve done.

I’m sorry… BUT… I had too much to drink, I was raised that way, what can you expect? It’s a way of passing the blame onto someone or something else, rather than owning it, taking responsibility for my own actions.

I’m sorry… BUT YOU (I’m late, but you wanted to meet at the other side that town) It’s not that I’m disorganised. You’re inconsiderate. Perhaps amongst the worst is ‘I’m sorry, but you weren’t supposed to hear that…’


Talk can be cheap. When I was a little lad, and my behaviour left me facing the wrath of the 5ft nothing of sheer terror that was my mum, I’d try to escape inevitable punishment by declaring ‘I’m sorry’ and she’d say ‘are you sorry you did it or are you sorry you got caught?’


So let me explain where I’m going with this word sorry, and how it can be a healthy part of the spiritual life. It’s not just about being able to say the word. When we’re thinking about Sorry, it’s about being honest with yourself. Owning your own stuff.

It’s about self-examination. To borrow the analogy from 1 John, letting God shine his light on your life, helping you to be honest with yourself and him. It’s about saying ‘yes, I did it. I am doing it. I’ve hurt or I’m hurting other people, maybe hurting myself. I’m going to stop hiding from it. I’m going to set down all the buts, ifs and maybes. I’m going to name it. To myself. To God. Perhaps to someone else I can trust, who will help me with it.

And when you put it like that, maybe Elton John was right.

Maybe Sorry really is the hardest word after all.

For sorry bring us to another of those awkward words.


Sin’s not an easy word to talk about. But not necessarily for the reasons we might think. We can hear the word sin with that sense of condemnation. We might be willing to admit we’re not perfect, I mean, who is, we’re only human. But it’s all right when I say it about myself. Not when someone else says it. Sinner, sadly for me, is one of those words that sounds so much worse in a ‘Norn Irln’ accent. I’m reminded of posters displayed outside ‘gospel’ halls in Belfast declaring ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ It was years before I realised that those posters, isolating those few words, actually give a very different impression from that intended by Paul when he wrote them.

But that’s not the main problem. The word sin itself has taken on a lot of cultural baggage. Ice cream, chocolate, lingerie can all be described as sinful. In modern language sin is basically connected with enjoying any pleasure, especially if it’s somehow connected to sex. For some of us, who have been around church a while, sin can be powerful word. But for others sin is something well, I shouldn’t, I really shouldn’t, but go on then, I didn’t really mean it…

We might recognise especially evil people, that we see on the news, or watch in crime dramas. That’s nice and safe for us. It’s out there. In other people. They’re the predator. We’re the victims. It’s them. Not us.

Writer Francis Spufford has another way of describing it. He talks of the HPTMTU*. The human propensity to muck things up. It’s about our active ability to break stuff. Moods, promises, relationships. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves.

And it’s like something inside us actually wants the destructive things we do.

It’s not only religious people who speak this way. Freud spoke of unconscious processes subverting our conscious intentions. On the surface we want to be good people. But something stops us achieving it. Geneticists talk about humans as an ambassador sent forth by an unstable coalition. Parts of us are pulling in different directions. Or as Paul put it, almost 200 years ahead of them, what I would not, that I do. What I would, I do not.  

Spufford says wherever the line is drawn between good and evil, between acceptable and unacceptable, between kind and cruel, between clean and dirty, we’re always going to be voting on both sides of it, despite ourselves. Not all of us, on every subject, all of the time, of course. But all of us, on some subject or other, some of the time.

It’s not the whole truth about us. But it is a truth.

Everyone fails.




There are as many different combinations of the HPTMTU as there are people to do the mucking up. We all exhibit our own mix, as unique as our finger prints. There’ll be times you will be able to look at me and think ‘I wouldn’t mess up like him.’ There will be times when I think the same about you.

But we have one thing in common. We’ll all mess up.




Of us.


And part of any healthy spirituality is acknowledging it.

In fact part of being a healthy human being is acknowledging it.

Jesus did not come to gather up the good, shiny, happy, squeaky clean people and exclude the bad. He came to invite us into a family of the guilty. We might not be all guilty of the same things, in the same way, to the same degree. But all of us guilty nonetheless.

But it is much easier to live in denial. To cover it over. Or to try and manage it.


Dallas Willard says we’ve done that with the Gospel. In his book The Divine Conspiracy he talks about Gospels of Sin Management. He says different parts of the church both recognise sin as a problem, but deal with it in different ways. In the more conservative side of the church the focus has been on getting your sins forgiven so you get to heaven. At it’s extreme this might not mean any change in your behaviour. It’s about getting sin dealt with. Willard calls it barcode Christianity. If I take the label of a tin of carrots and replace it with the label for baked beans, when it goes through the supermarket scanner it won’t matter what’s inside the can. All that will matter is the barcode. In Barcode Christianity God changes the label from sinner to Christian. Inside we may be no different than we ever were. But when the cosmic barcode reads our soul, what’ll matter is the label.

At the more liberal end of the church Willard says the focus is on the removal of structural or social evils in our world. Racism, sexism, anti-semitism, developing world debt. (Biggest crime in the world). All things which have no place in God’s world. But at the extreme it bypasses personal transformation. Or at least it’s played down.

Both personal piety and social transformation are good, essential, healthy. But in the end Jesus does not want to manage our sin. He came to cleanse us of it, help us overcome it, heal us, transform us.

But he can only do that if we acknowledge it. Not in some general way. We can all be good at that. Yes, God, I’m a sinner. I’m not really sure what I’ve done right now, but I’m sure I’ve done something.

But to acknowledge it.

To recognise and name my own unique personal mix of the HPTMTU.

The temptation not to own up to it, to face it, will always be there. To keep silent, to cover it up, to manage it, not name it. To avoid the move from verse 4 to verse 5 in the Psalm. And all the while it will continue to eat away at us.

God wants more for us than that. God takes you seriously. Perhaps more seriously than you do. Perhaps more seriously than you’d like. But part of taking people seriously involves taking what is wrong and destructive in them seriously. It’s not loving them to fail to do so.

But it can be easier to deceive ourselves, to think that on the whole we’re ok. In this regard we can learn from Alcoholics Anonymous. One of their maxims is ‘you’re only as sick as your secrets.’ John says in his Gospel says we prefer darkness to light. In today’s reading he talks about walking or not walking in the light.’


The Bible uses images of light and darkness in different ways. Light can symbolise purity or goodness, against darkness which is sin, or evil. So we might read those words as God is pure, holy and good and there is nothing sinful or evil about him. That’s fine as far as it goes. But it’s not what John is saying here.

When John tells us that God is light and in him is no darkness at all, what he’s effectively saying is that God’s not trying to hide anything from you.

God is upfront.

At risk of stating the blatantly obvious, light helps us see. Light reveals stuff. In the dark the best we can see is shadows. Light shows us things as they really are.

As a child, I would lie in the dark in my bedroom and that dressing gown, hanging over the chair or the wardrobe door would look so much like a giant monster. Yet by morning, when the sun came up, or even if I flicked on my bedside lamp it could be seen for what it was. A dressing gown. Nothing to fear.


When John says ‘God is light and in him there is no darkness at all’ one of the things he’s telling us is that when we come into the presence of God he’s up front. He shows us things as they really are. There’s no darkness to make things less clear. If we draw close to God, that light will shine on your life. As we allow more and more of his light into our lives, we start to see things as they really are.

Things is, light helps us to see ourselves more clearly. And that might not be comfortable. We talk of encountering God in worship. We often ask God to be present with us.

But for most of human history people would not have prayed like that. When gods showed up it wasn’t good news. It’s not much different in the Bible. When God showed up in Eden after Adam and Eve ate from the tree, what did they do? Hide. Look at the stories of Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Peter, Saul of Tarsus, John at the start of Revelation. Each time the first response is fear.

It can be uncomfortable to step into the light, to see and name and own our unique mix of HPTMTU. We are aware of it, at least subconsciously. And we don’t like it. Chances are it will be the thing we most dislike in others. So we judge ourselves, and assume God just wants to do likewise.

I remember a Facebook post from one of my old school friends who is a real atheist a while back. He wrote something like ‘Felt like God today. Made some plasticine men, just so I could judge them harshly.’


That kind of understanding might be another reason we stay out of the light. God shows us the truth. He shows us ourselves as we truly are. But telling it as it is, it’s not always a good thing is it? We all know people who make a virtue out of telling it like it is. Chances are we don’t enjoy huge amounts of time in their company. There’s a kind of truthfulness that just makes you feel bad.

But John in his Gospel says something else that’s relevant here. He says the Word become flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. Grace and truth. That makes all the difference.

I remember the first time in my relationship with Julie that I broke a glass. I dreaded telling her. In those early stages of a relationship it’s one of those awkward moments. But when I told her, her response was ‘it’s just a glass. Need help clearing it up?’

God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. For his light brings not just truth, but grace. God knows us exactly as we are. God doesn’t pretend about you so that he can love you. God takes our sin, our HPTMTU seriously. But he shines his light on us with compassion. Not to judge us, but to help us clear it up, to start again.


And the light he brings can be healthy in another way. Because sometimes what we tell ourselves, what we believe about ourselves is worse than the truth about us.

I’m reminded of a scene in the Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass where a speaker puts an empty chair at the front of the room and says ‘Imagine if Jesus was sitting here on this chair, right now. Wouldn’t you feel bad, Wouldn’t you want to hide your face and creep away when you thought about all the things in your life that were not as they should be?’ Adrian Plass just thinks how awesome it would be to see Jesus.


There is a kind of worthless worm Christianity which can focus on your sins and lead to a hyperactive conscience, which can make us feel guilty of more than is true.

Stepping into the light can actually protect us. It can keep us focused on the healing we really need, rather than beating ourselves up over unnecessary things.


God is not just able to forgive us our sin and help us to start again. He is willing to do it. But he can only do that if we acknowledge it. CS Lewis once said the most significant conversation you have each day is not the one you have with God, but the one you have with yourself before you speak to God. That determines how honest you are with God.

God is more interested in your honesty than your purity. The honesty he can work with. The one walking in the light is not a super Christian who never gets it wrong. It’s the one who knows when they do muck up, there is no need to pretend. When we refuse to acknowledge our weakness and fallibility, facing our failures will be threatening and receiving forgiveness impossible. But when we know we are loved, we are safe to step into the light and face it, for we are stepping into the beginnings of grace.


*Spufford actually speaks of the Human Propensity to F**k Things Up.  I figured I wouldn’t get away with that!

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Thanks Part 3


Reading: Philippians 4: 4-13;   I Thessalonians 5: 16-24

On my phone I have a lot of apps (or programs). Some I use a lot, others I wouldn’t notice if they were deleted. I was probably looking for something to do a particular task, and tried out a few (free) alternatives. Those I liked I used. The others got ignored. But often I don’t delete them straight way, unless I need space or it annoys me.

One of those unused ones sends me a little ‘motivational quote’ most days. I generally delete it without even looking at it. But during the week one did catch my attention. It said…

Life is like a camera. You focus on what is important.


At first I thought oh, that sounds good. But later, as I walked round Tesco, I started thinking about it and began to wonder if it was actually true.

For a start, whoever made that quote has not seen much of my photography. Today cameras on phones can take 20 pictures of the same thing and even help you decide which is the best. But I remember taking film to snappy snaps, being really excited when I got it back, then finding I’d cut heads off, took photos of the ground, got blurry snaps, covered the lens with my thumb… You might wonder if I was focussing on anything, let alone what was important.

But do we really focus on what’s important? I can spend lots of time on the most mundane, banal, trivial things. That day in the supermarket I passed a newspaper which invited me to turn to page 3 to discover details of a celebrity’s ‘oh-so-complicated love life.’ I caught myself reaching out to flick over the page to find out, before I thought ‘Andrew, why do you even care?’

Then there is a whole internet phenomenon called click bait. If you’ve ever found yourself clicking on a link which claims that what the cast of Grange Hill look like now is amazing or 36 things you didn’t know about Only Fools and Horses, you’ve fallen victim to it. These sites and their advertisers rely on us spending lots of time on trivia.

Have a quick scan of the magazine shelves and you’ll see all sorts of celebrity tittle tattle, look through the TV schedules and you’ll find such meaningful stuff like ‘world’s most embarrassing cheese sandwiches’ (not a real program, or please God, I hope it’s not!). To be fair, a man who series links Bargain Hunt shouldn’t be too critical of other people’s choices.

Lest I be accused of being snobbish, a friend of mine found himself wondering why he’d wasted half an hour listening to a Radio 4 programme about the history of the corridor. Or I heard a few minutes of one this week about the story of the colour black. Someone is going to tell that was brilliant…. Yesterday Radio 5 Live devoted more time to talking about the Liverpool v Man Utd game than the players spent playing it!

If none of those examples convince you, just consider how long I spent pondering this quote to come up with all those examples. And my only excuse was it was giving me a sermon intro.


But there’s another, more serious way in which I wonder if we really do focus on the important. It’s the age-old battle of the urgent and the important. Often we get them confused. We might even think they’re the same thing. But they’re not.

Urgent tasks are the demands we place on ourselves, that others place upon us, or we even just perceive they are placing upon us. Important tasks are those which are ultimately valuable. Those moments where we look back and think I wish I’d spent more time doing… In life we are constantly trying to balance them. A lot of urgent things are good, or even necessary. But it is all too easy to instead get distracted or consumed by the urgent. By whatever happens to be screaming loudest for our attention at that moment. And along the way we can lose sight of what is really important to us.


So as I reflected on the quote on the phone I found myself wondering if the quote should read

Life is like a camera. You should focus on what is important.

But actually one I think is even better is…

Life is like a camera. What you focus on is important.

For to borrow another quote, I came across in preparing for today…

You’re not what you think you are. But what you think, you are.

Where you allow your mind to focus will eventually shape your behaviour and who you become.

That message is running through both the passages from Paul’s letters, which we shared together this morning. Both passages are quite similar, with calls to rejoice, be prayerful, be thankful. Both talk about God’s peace and link it with being discerning about where we allow our minds to focus their attention. Both include calls to remember God’s faithfulness.

I want to steer us towards the idea of thankfulness. We’re continuing in this series about seasons or phases in the spiritual life through the 12 words in the circles on the screen. In recent weeks the word we have focussed on is Thanks.


Towards the end of the sermon a couple of weeks back, I suggested spending some time each day thinking of one or two things for which you are thankful. Modern research suggests that doing this can bring us emotional, spiritual, even physical benefits.

Of course that research  is not without its critics. If you type ‘gratitude’ lists into Google, one of the first suggestions Google will make about what you’re looking for is ‘gratitude lists are BS.’ I won’t explain the letters BS, except to tell you the B stands for Bull. You’re adults, you can figure out the rest.


One article I came across suggested instead that ingratitude lists saved them from depression. It presented the idea I gave you as escapist nonsense. It’s trying to divert our attention to these things, by having happy thoughts. Meanwhile none of our problems get sorted, cos you’re too busy having happy thoughts. Instead we should name stuff that makes us angry, sad, frustrated.

Now, there is a sense in which the writer had a point. If the purpose of the gratitude list was just to hide from everything bad, nothing would get solved. As we’ll see later I think there is a place for naming those things which trouble us. Although I wouldn’t call it an ingratitude list, to be fair.

Sometimes passages like we shared this morning can make us feel like that’s what’s going on. In some of our home groups recently, we’ve talked about how rarely we make space for lament within public worship and why that might be. Is a whole part of our life we cut off from worship and what does that say? We have prayers which talk of leaving our troubles at the door, or laying them aside as we come into worship. And I find myself thinking ‘really? Is that the best we can offer?’ Is God only interested in us if we feel or can put ourselves in a good place, in a happy mood. It reminds me of me being in a grump as a child and my mum saying visitors wouldn’t want to see my grumpy face. Leave your trouble there, just don’t forget to pick it up as you go?

A faith that forces you to live in denial is no good to anyone.

Without a bit of context we can read Paul’s words and think that’s the direction he is taking us. If we’re not feeling happy and thankful we can hear these words urging us to rejoice and feel like we’re being beaten up. They might feel quite naïve or trite.

You couldn’t say that about Paul. His life was rarely straightforward. One of his most loved bits of writing is Romans 8, when he talks about a lot of things that can’t separate us from the love of God. Things like trouble, hardship, persecution, hunger, poverty, danger or death. When Paul listed those things he was using examples from his own life. On another occasion he spoke about some of the things he endured in his ministry. He had been lashed and flogged numerous times, stoned, shipwrecked several times, lived in danger from just about every group in every situation, often going hungry, thirsty, tired and sleepless…

Even as he writes Philippians he is on trial for his life, and it’s unlikely to end well. As we’ll see shortly, one of the images he uses is taken directly from that experience. If you read the rest of Philippians you’ll see he’s writing to a bunch of people who are facing all sorts of trouble. Paul he doesn’t hide from any of it. At one point he even talks of destructive elements in the church reducing him to tears.

There is another little bit of background to what is going on here. One of the big schools of thought, in the Greek speaking world were Paul was writing and working, was the Stoics. They encouraged people to train themselves to believe that material things just didn’t matter. They used words like contentment to describe the goal of life. Live on a higher plane. Detach yourself from everything. Whatever life throws at you, treat it like it doesn’t really matter. You have it within yourself to master this, if you just dig deep.

And one of the ways in which they encouraged people to do this was by focussing on the virtues. One writer, who was influenced by the Stoics was a Roman called Cicero, who lived about a century before Paul. It’s interesting what he wrote, because it has echoes of what Paul says here.

The good of the mind is virtue: therefore the happy life is necessarily bound up with virtue. Consequently all that is lovely, honourable, of good report… is full of joys.

We still talk about being stoical. It’s still a popular philosophy, although we might not recognise it as such. We’ve even set it to music. ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.’ You’ll hear people say ‘if it’s going to happen, there’s nothing you can do about it: it’s fate.’

That was primarily the Stoic’s reason for saying don’t worry. You can’t beat fate so why let it bother you?

Paul borrows some stoic slogans in the Philippians reading. Paul never rejected stuff, just cos it didn’t originate with the scriptures or Jesus. He happily borrowed ideas, as did the other early Christians. It’s true that there were many ideas, values and behaviours which weren’t consistent with Paul’s message. His letters are full of examples of this. He urged those who entered a relationship with Jesus to leave such things behind.

But that didn’t mean he couldn’t find any good in their cultures. In a sense he is saying to them ‘if it helps you to think of what you had learned before you became a Christian, think about the best aspects of that life, and let it help you.’

But Paul doesn’t adopt ideas uncritically. There are a couple of big differences to how Paul approaches these ideas.

One involved us, the other involves God.

He doesn’t promise them that they will be spared hard times or pressure-packed lives. Nor does he minimise any of the concerns. But they don’t just have to blindly accept it. For they’re not in the hands of an impersonal fate.

No, they’re invited to bring them to a God who loves them and cares for them, who is active in the world, and cares about the things they care about.


Paul doesn’t put limits on their prayers. There is nothing too great that it’s beyond God. Yet there is nothing too small for his fatherly care. So they don’t have to live in denial. He doesn’t tell them to live like it doesn’t matter.

But that doesn’t mean the Stoics had nothing to offer. And Paul does say ‘think about how you think.’ He does encourage them to filter things through a different lens. Paul effectively writes ‘I know what I’m saying. I’ve thought of everything that can happen and I still come to the same conclusion – rejoice!’

It’s important that we have words like these against the backdrop we have them. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, it is possible to forget about the good things that come into our life, to take them for granted. But even if we might forget to be thankful in the good times, it is still easier to associate thanksgiving those seasons.

However life is messy and complex. We don’t always get our way. Can we be thankful in those times? Can we be thankful in all circumstances. Paul says we can. He tells us he’s learnt through experience to do it.

Paul doesn’t encourage either the Philippians or the Thessalonians to live in denial, just thinking happy, happy thoughts. Yes he tells them both to be thankful. But he tells the Philippians to ask God for what they need, and tells the Thessalonians to pray at all times. They are invited to name all their sources of struggle and sorrow. They’re invited to bring what might have been described as their ingratitude lists to God in prayer. They don’t have to treat these things like they don’t matter. They do matter and there is no need to hide them from God. The Lord is near and ready to listen.

We can struggle with this sometimes…

When things are going well we can slip into thinking that prayer is unnecessary.

When things are going badly and answers don’t seem to be quick in coming, we can start to think prayer is ineffective.

Then there are times when we are weighed down and it feels like prayer is impossible.

But Paul urges them to pray in all circumstances. Whether we feel it’s unnecessary, ineffective, impossible.

Hang on in there. Don’t give up.


But we’re also invited to come with thanksgiving. One of the problems we might have with this text is that we misread it. Paul does not tell us to thank God for all circumstances. He says thank God IN it. There’s a difference. Paul is not asking anyone to be a masochist.

But even in the midst of trouble there can be things for which to give thanks. We might look back on a time when our past and recognise how God helped us back then. And as we ponder what God can do, and we might be encouraged to believe he can and will do it again.

Or it might be those moments of grace we experience even in the midst of trial and sorrow. That friend who dropped by with the card and flowers. That person who phoned to say they were thinking of you. That book, film or TV programme you enjoyed when you weren’t able to do anything else. It might just be the fact that you got up and made it here today. It might be ‘yesterday was hell, but I’m still here.’ Thank you. They might feel like very little things. It might even be hard to explain to someone else why it matters. But they are part of the fuller picture.

It might be the lesson you learned in the midst of it. We often say if I knew then what I know now… but most of the time the only reason we know what we know now, is because of decisions we made when we didn’t know back then.

Petition and thanks. We need both. Life will be messy and tough, and in Jesus we discover a God who invites us to bring all of that to him. Who has lived human life and gets it!


Petition will be the focus of quite a few of the seasons or words we explore going forward. A real living faith does not have to live in denial. Indeed a real, living faith requires that we acknowledge those aspects of life. But acknowledge them with the reality that we face them not in the hands of an impersonal fate, but in the hands of a loving God who has asked us to cast all our cares onto him, for he cares for you.

But at the same time our lives are peppered with moments of grace. Some big and obvious, others we might have to dig a little deeper. But they’re there. And we need to acknowledge them too. If we don’t all we notice are the negatives. And then it’s all too easy to slide into bitterness and despair.

And Paul says if we do both, brings needs and thanks, the peace of God which passes all understanding will guards our hearts and minds. The image he uses is lifted from his own experience, and that of the Philippians. It’s a military term, for standing guard. Perhaps Paul looked up at the soldier standing guard over him. Philippi was a garrison town, perhaps he encouraged them to think of the sentry of guard at the town, stopping hostile invasion. God’s peace does go beyond our understanding. Sometimes we wonder how we find strength and resources when we’re at our lowest. But if we bring our prayers and concerns and take notice of the moments of grace, in time we will see God’s peace is like a peace-keeping force, taking possession of our hearts, keeping it safe from attacks outside.

We still need to play our part though. God can offer us peace, And that hinges on where we allow our mind to focus.

Life is like a camera. What we focus on is important.

We’re encouraged to bring our petitions to God, but all too often we take them straight back from him. We don’t leave them with him. Sir Thomas More once said ‘occupy your minds with good thoughts, or the enemy will fill them with bad ones: unoccupied they cannot be.’ We are surrounded by media, conversations and events which vie for our attention and lead us the other way. Cares and concerns scream for our attention. The urgent distracts us from the important. It requires effort to overcome that. But as Martin Luther once said ‘you can’t stop a bird flying overhead, but you can stop it nesting in your hair.’

And so he urges us to turn our thoughts to the true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. To test everything. To cling to what is good, and let go of what is destructive, damaging and harmful to us. Yes, make space to acknowledge the struggles. But also take time to notice the grace.

What you focus on is important. It will shape you.

Is it easy? No.

Is it instant? No

It does take time. Paul says he has learned to be content in good or bad times, in plenty or on shortage. The word for learned was a technical term for secrets or special knowledge in the religious world of his day. It wasn’t obvious and it took time, but over time, by mixing prayers with thanksgiving, he found that God brought him strength. Sometimes you won’t even notice it happening. Then somewhere along the way, you catch a glimpse of how you are somehow that peace is making a difference to how you are approaching life. Not all the time, maybe, but certainly you are going in the right direction.


As I touch this down, I have to confess up that I rushed past the quote with which I opened too quickly and didn’t read the whole thing…

Life is like a camera. Focus on what’s important. Capture the good times. Develop from the negatives. And if things don’t work out, take another shot.

Capture the good times. Seek out and notice the moments of grace, for even in the hard times, they will be there.

Develop from the negatives. You don’t have to deny them. But we can bring them to God, who is more powerful than we can imagine and in whose hands the trials and struggles of life need not speak the final word.

We can trust him with him, and allow his peace to pervade our lives, because he is the one who is able to take even the worst of us, and create a whole new shot.



Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Thanks Part 2 (Harvest All Age)

harvest 1

This was an all age service, largely based on a Scripture Union All Age Lectionary Service.

Readings: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

Imagine someone has done something very special for you. They might have bought you a really good present. Something you had always wanted.

Or they may have taken you out for the day somewhere you really wanted to go.

Or they invited you round to their party and you had a great time. What would you want to do? Chances are you would want to say thank you.

How might we thank someone?

Well we might write to them, or send them a card telling them how nice what they did for us was, and how we really appreciate the effort they went to.

We might phone them up and perhaps try to arrange doing something else sometime.

During the day they might have suggested that there was a particular book you would like, or a CD you would enjoy and you might go out and get it.


Anyway, we have lots of ways in which we show our gratitude.

Harvest is a time when we show our gratitude for all the good things God has given us. Most of us the focus is on the food we enjoy or the beauty of the world God has given us. But at harvest we can give thanks for all the good gifts God has given us – like the talents we have that enable us to earn money to buy what we need, the people God has placed around us to care for us, those without whom we would not have a harvest…

This morning we read some words from Deuteronomy. This was God’s message to the people of Israel, given to them by Moses, just before they entered the Promised Land. They had spent almost 40 years wandering in the wilderness and were about to enter a land of their own. And these words were telling them how they were to show their thanks to God once they were settled in the land into which he was taking them.

In particular they were being told to be thankful at the time of the harvest. They were to take the first fruits, the first bit of their crop and give them back to God. He said ‘Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.’ Harvest was to be a time of celebration. God had given them lots of good things and they were to celebrate by giving thanks for it. By bringing the first fruits, some of the produce of the land they were telling God they were thankful.

And today we have done something very similar. We too have brought gifts for the good things God has given us. Some of you have grown fruit and we have some of that here. Some have brought tins which we can give to the Foodbank to help others in our area. Some of us have used great skill in preparing the church to look as lovely as it does today, just as it always does at harvest. The people who decorate the church always do a great job and maybe we don’t thank you enough. In the spirit of today we do say ‘thank you.’ Some of us have given our money, which will go to Operation Agri and help some of the projects we saw in the video. All of these things are tokens of our thanks. They are all ways in which we show God we are thankful for all he has given us. We are giving thanks for his faithfulness.

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So today we are doing something that God’s people have done for thousands of years and celebrate harvest, showing our thanks for all the good things God gives us. But in our reading from Deuteronomy the people did not just give thanks and celebrate what God had given them right at that moment. They remembered the ways God had helped them in the past.

Part of their celebration was to remember part of the Bible story. They were say “My father Jacob was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labour. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’

God had blessed Jacob and from his family they had grown into a whole nation. But things had not always gone well for them. When they were in Egypt they were made to be slaves of the Egyptians. But God had not forgotten about them. When they cried out to God for help he heard them and he brought them out of Egypt, he led them across the wilderness and now they were about to be free, in their own land, a land which produced lots of good food. In this land they would be able to grow all the food they needed. The land was part of God’s provision to them.

At harvest, as we celebrate all the good food God has given us, it can also be good to stop for a moment and give thanks for the ways in which God has helped us. That might be in the recent past, say in the last week. It might be God helping us in a particular way, or with a particular problem. It might be through friends who have said the right things at the right time and encouraged us. It might be for something as basic as the clean water we can so easily enjoy, and not having to use up all our energies just getting the mere basics of life.

But for the people of Israel, at harvest they did not just remember how God provided food and care for them, important as that is. They remembered more than how he looked after them and guided them in the wilderness, important as that is. They remembered how God rescued them. They remembered how God led them across the Red Sea and rescued them from slavery. They also remembered this at Passover, a meal they held each year to remind them of the start of their rescue and the journey to the Promised Land. Harvest marked the end of it.

And every Sunday we remember that our God is still a God who rescues us. He’s a God who sent Jesus into the world to rescue us. We’re reminded of how in Jesus God showed his love for us, in the way he lived amongst us and in his dying on the cross, which made it possible for us to come back to God. He made it possible for the relationship we have with him, which was damaged by our sin, to be healed and restored. He freed us from slavery to sin and rescued us and saved us.

Often we too have a meal to celebrate God’s rescue. We call it communion. We’re not doing that today, but every Sunday we are given the chance to thank God for the ways in which he rescued us. We are given the chance to say thank you for all that Jesus did for us.

Today as we remember how God has provided some of our most basic needs, we have a chance to renew, or even for the first time place, our trust in that God. Today is a chance to say thank you to God for sending his son Jesus, and telling God we want him in our lives. If we tell God we want to turn our back on the sin which has damaged our relationship with him, and tell him we want the relationship with him that God longs for us to have, he will restore us to that relationship. Then we will not only be able to celebrate God’s provision, but also God’s rescue.

But there are other ways we can express our gratitude for that. Coming back to some of the things we spoke about earlier. We can spend time in the Bible and come to learn more and more of God. We might spend time listening to those who can tell us more about God’s love or reading some of what they have written. But actually the best way is by trying to become more like Jesus. Because grateful as we should be for the way in which God has shown his love to us, God longs to show his love to others and the main way he will be able to do that is through us. If we think back to how we came to know of God’s love, it will have been mainly through others. Now if we have experienced God’s love and rescue, it is our turn to show our gratitude by doing the same for others and letting them know of what God has done for them in Jesus.

So today we get the chance to say thank you for all the good things God has given us. The food we eat, water we drink, the clothes we wear, the gifts we have and the people who love us. But we also give thanks for the things God has done for us in Jesus. In coming into the world, living amongst us, dying on the cross, rising to new life and for the promise that if we put our trust in him, we can celebrate not just the gifts of this life, but the eternal life God longs to give us.


Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Thanks 1


Readings: Psalm 103, Luke 17: 11-19

Last week I was thankful to renew friendships with David from Game Day Church. I received a message saying they got back safely and to thank us for welcoming them last week. They were very pleased they got a nice big (and quite surprising) win.

When they come and worship here, their team wins.

Coincidence? I think not!

I had dinner with them last Sunday night, and with all the stuff about the protest at the games last week, we got talking about the political situation over there. They were surprised when I mentioned that this morning I’d be opening with a quote from one of their politicians.

It’s from Elizabeth Warren, the senior Senator for Massachusetts. It’s from a speech she made before running for Senate. She was talking about wealthy businessmen who begrudged paying their taxes. The people who said they worked hard. Used their own effort and initiative. Who said they were self-made. They didn’t rely on the government for money, but now government wants to take their money away in taxes. It was on that idea of being self-made that Elizabeth Warren made this statement.

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory or hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.


You may remember, way back in the mists of time, back in the days when I used to preach, we’d started exploring different aspects or seasons of the spiritual life, using the 12 words on the screen.

We started with the word Here. We don’t have to get ourselves to somewhere else to encounter God. God comes to meet us here. We’re invited to wake up to the presence of God who is with here and now. Wherever and whenever we are. Whether we notice his presence or not, whether we recognise his presence or not, whether we particularly want his presence or not.

Next we considered the word O. That was about our sense of awe and wonder. The 20th Century writer GK Chesterton is one of those people who is always good for a quote. He said ‘we are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.’

So whether it was a sense of wonder at creation, an awareness of God’s great love and mercy, or when we recognise what God longs to do in and through us, what God can do in us and through us, the power that God want to make available to us, it should give us that O moment, that sense of awe and wonder. Awe, wonder, O are a good, vital part of a healthy spirituality.

This morning, and over the next weeks, I want to suggest to you the same is also true of our third word.


Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order, found thankfulness so important he described ingratitude as one of the worst evils or sins which could be imagined. For, he said, it is a failure to recognize the good things, the graces, and the gifts received. As such, it is the cause, beginning, and origin of all evils and sins.

The 13th Century German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote ‘if the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you, that would be sufficient.’ Modern writer Annie Lamott has a book which suggests there are three vital prayers…

Help, which we’ll come to soon enough,

Wow, which we’ve already done,

and Thanks.

So Thanks, or gratitude will be our focus over the next few weeks. I plan to consider it from a few different angles. Next week is Harvest Sunday, and we’ll be thanking God for his provision for us

But I recognise that life is not always great and often there are things we struggle with. We might it hard to feel thankful at such times. The words we’ve considered so far have all been quite upbeat. That won’t always be the case going forward. Please don’t take anything I say this morning to be a ‘don’t worry, think positive, be happy’ message. Being healthy involves acknowledging the bad things in your life, and naming it as such.

But even when things are tough, it is not only possible to find things for which to be thankful, but it can actually be helpful. That’s what I plan to think about in two weeks. That will also act as a bridge into some of the more challenging words to come.

This morning however I want to look at thankfulness, or gratitude more generally. If Here was about becoming aware of the presence of God, Thanks is about becoming aware of the presents of God.

Why is thanks so important?

Why can it sometimes be difficult?

Why should we nurture it and how?

Why is it dangerous to ignore it?

And why begin with an Elizabeth Warren speech about ‘self-made’ businessmen and women?

What she was saying was those whom she was addressing were focussing all their energy on what they had done, what they had achieved, and forgot, overlooked or failed to notice the contribution of others. That is where ingratitude begins.

I imagine most of us haven’t built a factory and made millions. But she was touching on something of which each of us, in our own way, can be guilty.

In our modern world we value independence. We like to think we’re independent. We can stand on our own two feet. If you are blessed with children, you probably hope they’ll develop a high degree of independence.

But the truth is, none of us truly are. Every time we eat, drink, breathe even, we demonstrate that we are not self-contained units. We are utterly dependent on elements and minerals for our survival. We rely on chemical, biological, geological, even astrophysical processes. I mean what if the sun stopped shining? None of what we’ve built up or achieved would matter.


Next week we’ll celebrate harvest and give thanks to God for his provision. There’s a great big chain between the seed going in the ground and food on our plate. Those who harvest the food, turn it into finished goods, transport it, put it on shelves. Deal with the waste afterwards. We’ll give thanks for all of those involved, because we rely on all of them. If they didn’t do it, where would we be?

All too often we don’t realise how vulnerable or reliant we really are on some things until we have to without them. As the great prophet Joni Mitchell once sang

don’t it always seem to go,

that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone 

A few years ago that Icelandic volcano that I won’t even attempt to pronounce erupted. It brought air travel to a halt for a short period. Well imagine an epidemic halted travel for a much longer time. Or what if a cyber-terrorist attack meant we lost power or the internet for weeks on end? I mean, if I leave the house without my phone, I feel like I’m missing a limb.

We like to think we’re independent, self-reliant, but if we stop and think about it for a moment, we’re not really.

But it’s so easy to forget.

And when we forget, that’s when ingratitude sneaks in.

And if it’s easy to forget how reliant we are on people and things we can see, or processes we can observe, how much easier to forget our reliance on God.

No wonder Jesus told us to pray ‘Give us today our daily bread.’ In fairness he was speaking to a bunch of people who were mostly one short illness away from being completely destitute. It seems more remote to people with full fridges, freezers and cupboards. Even if we change it to give us what we need for today, so often we’re really relying on resources we already have, and we can forget that those are good gifts with which God has blessed us.


That’s a truth the person who wrote the Psalm we read together realised. That’s why he says ‘Bless the LORD and forget not all his benefits.’

Psalm 103 is a little unusual. It’s a song of praise and thanksgiving, for the most part it’s not addressed to God. He’s talking to himself (or herself). He’s telling himself to remember all that God has done for him personally, for his people, even when they turn against him. He’s reminding himself of God’s understanding nature, how he recognises our frailties and even when we struggle to forgive ourselves and think God would have finished with us, his grace, love and care goes on and on.

It’s like the psalmist realises all of life is pervaded by God’s grace. But he’s worried what might happen if he, or those around him, forgot that. He takes his time to grasp and acknowledge, as fully as possible, all that God has done for him. He lodges them in his memory…

For a couple of reasons.

One is that hopefully it will help him to remember when trouble comes in the future that God has proven faithful in the past, so he can be trusted to continue to do it again.

But the other reason is more basic…

Because it is so easy to forget.

We see that in the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers. Here’s something that might surprise you… sometime sit down and read a Gospel. If you can do it in one sitting even better, but not essential. You’ll see Jesus do all sorts of amazing things for all sorts of different people. But read carefully and as you do, ask this question… how often is Jesus thanked? We might assume that people Jesus helped were grateful for his help. We might read it into the story. But how often are we told? It might surprise you just how rare it is.

Jesus is travelling in an area between Samaria and Galilee and he encounters 10 lepers. We’re not told a huge deal about them. The fact that Jesus tells them to go to the priest may suggest he assumed that some of them are Jews. We find out later at least one is a Samaritan.

Two groups of people who wouldn’t normally mix. But when everything else is stripped away we realise that none of the stuff that matters to others matters here. Nobody wants them. That’s why they find themselves on that patch between Galilee and Samaria. Disease broke down the racial barriers between them, even as it erected barriers between them and everyone else.

They see Jesus and together, as one, they call out to him… ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’

When Jesus sees them and presumably works out what the problem is, he tells them to go, show themselves to the priests. That way they can prove they’ve recovered, they’re no longer a danger and can return to their communities and families.

They seem to take Jesus at his word. Off they go in their various directions. We’re not told at what stage along the way they were cleansed, but one of them, a Samaritan, is on his way when he suddenly realises he’s been healed. He rushes back to thank Jesus and to praise God for his healing.

Jesus expresses his surprise that only one returns, but sends him on his way, to start his new life in his community. One out of ten.


We’re not told why the other nine didn’t come back. Maybe they were so delighted to be reunited with their families that it just slipped their minds. By the time of this story Jesus is drawing opposition. Maybe the nine don’t want to be too closely associated with him.

But it is an all too human reaction. How many prayers are offered, God if you just get me out of this, I’ll do that… and we forget. How often do we forget to go back and give thanks to God for the good things he has brought into our lives. How often do we just not notice them?

It’s there in our language. Insurance companies for example talk of ‘acts of God.’ It’s never a good thing, is it? Why doesn’t God get credit for nice things?


When something bad happens, it’s fairly common to ask ‘why me? What have I done to deserve this?’ I’m not knocking that, it’s perfectly normal. But how often do we ask those questions when we experience something good? Grace is just as mysterious as suffering. But we very rarely question grace, at least when it comes to us.

I don’t know if any of you watch Songs of Praise. I’m not a regular viewer myself, but I did watch the resent episode from the International Air Show in Eastbourne. I watched it because a good friend of mine was being interviewed by Aled Jones. Alice is a minister in Watford, but she was a pilot in the RAF. She was sent into a war zone and promised God if she got home safely she would start going to church. She got home from the war, but forgot all about her promise. It was only when she had another scare that she remembered it.

I don’t say it to criticise her. I’m just as capable of that. It does take effort to notice the good in our lives. It is very easy to forget. The bad screams at us for attention. Our survival instinct has trained our brains to be turned on to danger very quickly. It’s important for survival to recognise that someone running towards you with an axe is a bad thing worth escaping. Noticing someone approaching you with a bunch of flowers, a thank you card, or a rubber duck, less so. Our brains are better equipped at registering bad experiences then good. It’s how we’re wired. It takes effort to register the good.

But it’s not just nature. It’s nurture. Our culture actively trains us to be ungrateful. You might be surprised at that. You might say ‘but I teach my kids to say please and thank you.’ I’m sure you do.

But a lot of money is spent to make you unhappy and ungrateful. It’s called advertising. The average person in Britain sees between 3 and 5000 adverts a day and each single one of them is designed to make you dissatisfied with what you have. To make you focus on what you don’t have. Every one tells you that you will be happier or with this…


That’s another reason why gratitude is so hard to develop. Cos gratitude is actually quite subversive.


Yet gratitude may be the greatest secret to our happiness. For in reality our happiness has less to do with what we have, or how much, and more to do with how much we appreciate what we have. I accept that there are those with nothing. Not even the basics. That’s different. But for most of us that’s the case.

Rather than focussing on what we do not have, do we notice and feel grateful for what we do?

Think of the happiest, or contented people you know. I guarantee you they’re grateful people.

Think of people who are never happy, never satisfied, always grumbling. How happy are they? Who would you rather be?


We might think the first group are grateful because they’re contented. But the relationship actually works the other way. They’re contented because they’re grateful.


Psalm 103 is probably about 2500 years old. But science is catching up with it. Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough have written a lot on the subject. They say ‘a life oriented around gratefulness is the panacea for insatiable yearnings and life’s ills… it works its magic by serving as an antidote to negative emotions. It’s like white blood cells for the soul, protecting us from cynicism, entitlement, anger and resignation.

Some of you who grew up in church may have known the song count your blessings, name them one by one. Years since I’ve sung it. But maybe it’s due a revival, because another psychologist, this time from this country, suggests it makes perfect sense. Mark Williams, from Oxford University recommends a 10 finger gratitude exercise. Once a day he says list 10 things you’re grateful for and count them on your fingers. They don’t all have to be positive things, like someone buying you a coffee, or taking time to chat with you. It can include things like that person you thought was about to walk out in front of your car and stopped at just the right time. Things that didn’t go wrong. His research suggests that those who do it have lower stress levels and a greater sense of calm at night.

Sometimes he says that won’t be easy. But that’s the point. We need to intentionally bring to our awareness tiny, unnoticed elements of the day. Stuff we would otherwise overlook. And when we do we realise we’re not self-contained units. We see how many times we have been touched by grace. We become aware not just of the presence of God, but his presents.

You might think 10 a bit much. But why not try each day thinking of two, or three. Maybe write them down. Talk about them. But notice them. The science tells us it’s good for the body, and good for the mind. And the scriptures remind us it’s good for the Spirit. That shouldn’t surprise us, cos it’s the same God behind all three.


Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: O (Part 3)`


Reading: Ephesians 3: 14-21

On May 6 1954, Roger Bannister made history when he became the first man to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. This was something which, it was claimed, men had been trying thousands of years to achieve. Some were chased by bulls to encourage them to run a bit faster. Perhaps the fact we don’t know their names suggests it didn’t end well(!)

At the time some doubted whether the human body was even capable of the sub-4-minute mile. In the 1940s two Swedes, had run just over 4 minutes 1 second. But the record had stood for 9 years.

Even those who thought it might be possible said it would require perfect conditions. By this they meant a dry, windless day, around 20 degrees Celsius, on a hard clay track, probably in Scandinavia, in front of a huge crowd.

Well, May 6 1954 was a cold, wet, windy evening in Oxford with a small crowd. Bannister’s training had been limited and he even spent the day of the race working at a hospital where he was training to be a doctor. Basically none of the conditions seemed to be right for Bannister to achieve what many already thought was impossible.

Six men entered the race that day. CW Brasher led the first half of the race, passing the half mile mark at 1 minute 58 seconds. CJ Chataway then picked up the pace, leading as they entered the last lap. Bannister started his last lap at 3 minutes and 0.7 seconds. He took the lead about 350 yards from the finish and gave it everything.

When’d he’s crossed the line, exhausted, everyone waited for the announcement.

Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine, the one mile: first, number forty one, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which—subject to ratification—will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three…”

Well, the rest of the announcement was drowned out by the crowd. His time was 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. History had been made.


But Bannister’s world record didn’t last. 45 days later it was beaten by Australian John Landy. A couple of months later both runners achieved it again in the same race. So Landy ran a time which just 2 months previously had been considered impossible and didn’t win!

Today Roger Bannister’s first, ‘impossible’, 4-minute mile is the joint 4267th fastest time for the distance. But Bannister’s was important. Many had thought it impossible, particularly in those conditions, but Bannister believed more was possible. And when he showed it could be done, that opened the way for others to follow.


There’s something of that in today’s Bible reading. Paul is writing to a small bunch of new Christians, in an important city called Ephesus. He wants them to believe that even in conditions they would not have thought were right or ideal, they were capable of far more than they realised.

One word crops up again and again in our reading.


Verse 16: He prays that God may strengthen them with power in their inner being.

Verse 18: He asks that they might have power, together with all God’s people

Verse 20: he speaks of God’s power at work in the church, that’s them, doing far more than they can ask, think or imagine.



Ephesians is a letter which talks a lot about power, written by a man who knew a lot about power, to a people who knew a lot about power.

Paul certainly knew all about power. He seems to spend much of his life falling on the wrong side of the powerful. At one stage he could say he’d been flogged 5 times, beaten with rods another 3 and stoned once. He’s writing this letter from prison, as he edges up the Roman power ladder, towards trial with the ultimate earthly power of his day; the Roman emperor. There is not a lot that anyone could have told Paul about power.

The Ephesian Christians knew a lot about power. Ephesus was a centre of social and civic power. It was a hub where Roman rule throughout the region was administered and celebrated.

It was also a centre of religious power. As with any major city, Ephesus was very multicultural with lots of different religions and many of these focussed on power – what we might call magic today. This meant the power to make things happen, to influence people and events, to gain wealth, health or influence and hurt anyone who stood in their way.

The Ephesian world was dominated multiple layers of rulers and authorities, from local magistrates, to internationally recognised god and goddesses.

And set, in the middle of that, was this group of believers. Maybe a few dozen of them. Probably fewer than we have here today. Most of them would have been slaves and the like. Very few would have much higher up the social ladder.

That’s before you mention that their founder was in prison, with no real certainty about the outcome, but he’d most likely face the full wrath of worldly power in execution.

What possible impact could they have on the society around them? They could have been forgiven for asking what they could do, whether they even had a future.

But Paul longs for them to realise that they are capable of far more than they ask of realise. Capable even of what some would consider impossible.

But not, like Roger Bannister, because of their own powers and ability,

but because of God’s power at work within them.

We’re continuing to explore different aspects or seasons in the spiritual life through the 12 words on the screen. The word I’ve been focussing on for a few weeks is this one… O. We’re thinking about that sense of awe, wonder, worship. It’s almost not a word at all, more like a sound we make or the shape our mouths form, when we see something the English would describe as ‘breathtaking’… O!

You might have seen the coverage of this week’s total solar eclipse. There is a sense in which we know it’s a perfectly natural, if rare, thing. It’s just a coincidence of the moon passing in front of the sun at just the right angles to completely cover our view of the sun. And it’s not a surprise. We know precisely when and where it will happen.

Yet even though we can explain it it still has the power to inspire awe and wonder. John was telling me that on the news there were people who’d booked years in advance to get a view. As we approach the total eclipse the birds stop singing, it’s like creation itself pauses to stop in wonder. At the point of totality, there’s a collective ‘O my God.’


Or is it an expression of wonder?

Either way, there’s that word.



In the first reflection on this word O, creation in all its beauty and wonder and power were the source of or thoughts. Last time out we considered some other words Paul wrote, this time to the Romans, about being driven to worship by his sense of God’s love and mercy.

There is a little bit of both of those in this morning’s passage. Paul recognises and acknowledges God’s power to create and to rule over everything. There’s an odd sentence early in the reading about every family in heaven and earth gaining it’s true name from him. It’s a confusing sentence but the basic sense of about God’s power and rule over all things.

In Genesis when Adam names all the animals, there’s that sense of Adam being given power over all creation. That’s what’s going on here. Paul is talking about God giving life and energy to all created things. He names all things. He has authority over all things, whether it is recognised or not.

Paul wants them to be left in no doubt about God’s power. He tells them God’s not short of power. God has inexhaustible riches of the stuff. He’s not going to run short. It’s right to have awe and wonder for the power of God.

But that’s not Paul’s main point. He wants them to know that God doesn’t want to hold onto that power all for himself. God wants to make his power available to them, to that small group of seemingly powerless believers in the great big city to Ephesus.

But not just to them.

He’s talking of that power being available to us.

To me.

And to you.

So important does Paul think it is that they understand this that he describes himself falling on his knees, or kneeling, perhaps even falling on his face. To us kneeling in prayer would be considered quite normal. We might not do it, at least I don’t tend to. But it’s an idea we’re aware of. But Jews and early Christians normally stood to pray. Kneeling was a sign of really earnest longing and prayer. It’s what Jesus does in Gethsemane, as he asks God if there is another way to save us, other than facing the cross. Luke says Jesus knelt to pray, Matthew and Mark say Jesus threw himself on the ground. So Paul’s kneeling on the ground is a sign of just how earnest this prayer is.

But what is this power that Paul is speaking of?

What kind of power do we think they’d want?

What kind of power would we want?

Cos we can want the wrong kind of power for the wrong kind of reasons. Those around the Ephesian Christians were all to aware of the kind of power those around them craved. Even today there are those who will try to sell a version of Christianity which is about gaining health and wealth, and talk of prayer is remarkably similar ways to magic. And it can hide behind people wanting others to see how good God is.

And I’m sure Paul would love to see the Ephesians achieve great things. But that’s not what his earnest prayer is.

It’s much more basic than that.

He wants them to have power to grasp just how much they are loved and from that to discover just what God can do with them and through them.

Paul starts in the heart, in the inner man (or inner woman). It’s a theme we come back to again and again, and I make no apologies for it, and Paul emphasises it here. You might call it your inner person, you might call it your character, you might describe it as the person you are becoming. Take care of that and the rest will take care of itself.

Paul wants them to allow Christ to make his home in their hearts. What does he mean? I remember as a child being told I had to ask Jesus into my heart. We sang a song which went ‘there’s a flag flying high over the castle of my heart, for the King is in residence there.

There’s a couple of different ways in which you can make yourself at home. In June Julie and I hired a cottage in Norfolk for a week. It was a lovely place, clean, comfortable, there were a couple of nice touches, like the bunch of fresh flowers in a vase on a table when we arrived. It was clear the owners want us to feel at home.

But that involved living with their décor, furniture, bed linen and so on. You may or may not like what they’ve done with the place (in this case we did) but you’re only there for a week so provided it’s clean, comfortable and (for those who know my unfortunate experience in Belfast recently) not a brothel, it doesn’t really matter. If I started decorating, hanging wallpaper and the like, I doubt the owners would like it. And not just because I’d make a mess of it. They don’t want me making my mark on it. They want me to leave it as I found it. Almost like I’d never been.


But I live in the manse. Before we moved here I remember walking around it with Doug, talking about how we would like it to be decorated. We picked carpets and lino, and various other fixtures and fittings. The night we moved in Doug met us at the manse and told us to make ourselves at home. He meant that differently from the people who owned the holiday cottage. It’s filled with our furniture. Over time we make a few little touches, so it reflects our tastes and character. So there’s some lovely touches, which Julie has brought to the place because she has class and style. Then there’s my rubber ducks and Lego!! A few weeks ago, after 31/2 years, I finally hung the pictures in my study… which is more than I managed in 6 years in Somerset! If you walked around you’d find clues to our interests, tastes and character.

It’s that second sense that Paul is talking about here. Of Christ making himself at home in our hearts. He’s not just visiting. Over time his reign is spreading over the different areas of our lives. More and more of our lives are reflecting his character.


But Paul wants them and us to have power to know the unknowable. May you, he says, together with all God’s people have the power to grasp how broad and long and high and deep is Christ’s love. Yes, may you come to know his love; although it can never be fully known.

It seems an odd thing to say, may you know the unknowable. But although in English they are the same word, in Greek they are not. And in English we use the word know in different ways. There is stuff we know which is basically fact.

The battle was Hastings was in what year? 1066.

2+2 =? 4.

There is stuff we know which can be scientifically proven.

If I throw this pen into the air, what’ll happen? It’ll fall. How do we know? Cos it always happens.

We’ve developed laws based on those observations.


But I also know Julie loves me. And I’m pretty sure that Julie knows I love her. But that’s not something we can prove. That’s one sense in which we know the unknowable.


But there’s another element to it. Like many in my line of works I have a great love of, some might say addiction to, books.

There’s a flowchart here which summarises my life.



I often joke that I wish I could be well read without having to do all the reading. There are so many things I’d love to read and learn about, but I know I never will. I know that when I finally leave this life, God willing many years from now, one thing I will leave behind is a great pile of unread books.

Some of you who love to travel will know that feeling. The more you explore the more you know there is to explore. There is always that one more thing to see.

But just because I am never going to read everything I want to, it doesn’t mean I never pick up another book. Just because the traveller will never see and explore all they want to, doesn’t mean they stop travelling. I keep reading, you keep exploring for as long as we are able.

So it is with the love of God. You will never be able to experience it in all its breadth, lengths, heights and depths. For it’s broad enough to include all people, of every kind, of every age; there is no length God’s love will not go to reach us, for his love took him to the cross; there is no depth to which we can sink from which he cannot lift us and it’s a love that longs to lift us into his presence.

You might liken it to a deep sea diver. You’re never going to get to the bottom of the ocean, but there is still much wonder to experience on the way, and that’s why they do it. So it is with the love of God. There is a great big ocean, but all too often we paddle by the shore, when what we really need to do is dive in and experience it. To revel in it. To be wowed by it. To discover that sense of awe and wonder at the love of God, even though you’ll never fully understand it.

But Paul doesn’t just want them to come to know more and more of how they are loved. He wants them to know what God can achieve through them.

There are three words at the very start of the reading which I glossed over which need explaining. Paul says ‘for this reason, I kneel before the Father.’

For what reason? What is Paul talking about?

If we read the opening part of Paul’s letter, he starts by talking of a mystery, which has reached down through history, but has suddenly been revealed.

The world Paul lived in was nothing like the world today. Not at all. In the world he knew people were divided against one another. People were divided by race, ethnicity, gender, status, religion… All over the world there was strife and tension. As I say, not at all like today!! History just seemed to go round and round in circles.

The Roman empire claimed to be the power to bring peace and unity in the midst of all this division. You could unite with them, or you could have a cross.

But the mystery that Paul says is that, even though we can’t always see it, God is taking it somewhere. God has a plan to bring an end to all the divisions, and draw us back to him and back together because God so loved the world. That was why Jesus came into the world.

But Jesus wasn’t the end of the story. God is continuing to work his purpose out. But he’s doing it in a very surprising way. It’s not through the great and the good, though they may have their place. He’s doing it through little communities like the Ephesians.

Through people like us.

It’s not because of who we are or how great we are. It’s not because there is some set of ideal conditions that God says I can work with that. It’s because God has more faith in us than we have in ourselves. God thinks more is possible than we realise. It’s about his power at work in us.

The same God whose Spirit hovered over the chaotic waters of creation, hovers over the seeming chaos of history, and even over the seeming chaotic events of our lives.

The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, seeks to bring new life into situations in our world and our lives which seem dead and buried, without hope.

And he invites us to be part of it. He longs to fill us, have his Spirit empower our community. He makes that same power that was there at creation and at the resurrection to bring about his new creation. Paul really piles on the descriptions to get them and us to see that what might seem impossible, others might think impossible, we might even believe is impossible, is not beyond the power of our God.

God is not just able to do what they ask in prayer…

He’s also able to do what they fail to ask but can think…

He’s able to do above all they ask or think…

He’s able to do abundantly above all they ask or think…

He’s able to do more abundantly above all they ask or think…

He’s able to do more infinitely abundantly above all they ask or think…


It’s like he’s stepping back and back and back to get a wider angle. And as last time when he gets a glimpse of the wideness of the mercy of God, and just has to stop and worship, so he says you’re never going to be able to take it in. Stop and worship and just go with it. Experience it. Live it.

But it begins with grasping the love of God and living it out in community. There is enough division in the world without the church adding to it, which all too often we’ve done.

But when churches work together, share together, show they belong together, whatever their background, class, gender, colour, it’s a sign of the power of God at work in us. It can be a sign that maybe life can be different. The world can be different.

It’s as God makes his home in us and amongst us, and we become formed to his character, we become a place where God’s presence really comes to be felt. Get that in place and the rest follows. When that happens, who knows what God can do with us?