Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Thanks Part 3

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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.

 

 

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Posted in 12 Words

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

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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

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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.

Thanks.

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)`

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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.

Power.

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.’

Blasphemous?

Or is it an expression of wonder?

Either way, there’s that word.

O.

 

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.

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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?

 

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: O (Part 2)

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Reading: Romans 11: 33 – 12: 2

It’s a question that’s asked quite frequently of people like me. ‘Do you not think, at the end of the day, we all worship the same God?’

The form might slightly vary. Sometimes it’s formed as a statement, or an assumption… ‘sure, we all worship the same God.’ But it’s the same kind of idea.

In my previous pastorate the ministers of our local churches used to lead some RE sessions with students at the local Comprehensive School. Each class would end with a ‘grill a Christian’ Question and Answer session. Every time I was asked some variation some variation on that question.

It sounds straightforward enough. But most of the time, I’ve found, that’s not what they’re really asking. There is another question behind the question. And it’s more about the next life than this one. What they really want to know is is if I believe people who belong to a different religious group are going burn in hell forever.

And those two questions are not the same.

So I would say something like this…

Say both of us have a best friend called Fred. But Fred, you and I have never all been in the same room. Are we talking about the same person? How would you know?

Well you might describe them. You tell me your friend Fred is a ginger-haired, vegetarian, teetotal, Man United fan. I say mine is bald, hates all sport and loves to wash down a Big Mac with a single malt whisky.

 

Now, I suppose it’s possible that Fred behaves very differently when he is with each of us. But do you think we’re talking about same guy? Would we assume we were talking about the same person just because they shared a name?

So why would we do it with God?

But notice something…

…My answer isn’t really about what religious grouping someone happens to belong to. I remember being asked this question about us all worshipping the same god, back when I was a student minister. This time it was by the lovely Sikh lady who ran the shop across the road from the manse. I said ‘I can’t say for sure that all the people in my church worship the same God…

….And there are only about 30 of us.

So I can hardly be expected to speak for 6 or 7 billion people in the world.’

If we want to know are we worshipping the same God, perhaps you should tell me what your God is like.

I was reminded of that this week when I came across a remark by another (Baptist) minister, with links to the US government, seemed to advocate using nuclear weapons. And I thought ‘I really doubt we’re talking about the same god.’

We’re continuing to explore different aspects or seasons in the spiritual life through the 12 words on the screen. A couple of weeks ago I started on our second word… O.

With this word, 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!

Over the next number of months I plan to talk about how all these words form part of a good, healthy, spirituality… even some of the tougher words we’ll reflect on later. But most people of faith would probably agree worship forms part of a healthy spirituality.

But what’s that got to do with how I started?

Well, if we’re going to worship, it’s worth considering why we should do it?

Why bother?

That’s tied in with another question.

What kind of God we’re worshipping?

What is this God like?

Is such a god worthy of worship?

Does he deserve it?

And given what we discover about him, or what he has revealed to us, how then should we worship?

 

Why worship in the first place?

Why does God want, or command our worship?

Is it because God really needs it?

Is God high-maintenance?

Is God insecure?

Is he constantly demanding our attention?

Does he need us to constantly tell him how much we love him, else he’ll get depressed or angry?

Or maybe God likes to dominate us?

To boss us around?

Is he never happier than when we are grovelling before him?

That’s certainly the impression you would get from some modern atheists. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins writes ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’ There’s lot of big words in there. Even if you don’t know what they all mean you get a sense of what he thinks. This God’s not very nice. 

To be fair, Dawkins doesn’t extend that to Jesus. In fact, he quite likes Jesus. He’s impressed with his teaching. But, for Dawkins, the fact that Jesus believed in God is apparently the least interesting thing about him.

In his time, he says, ‘atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness.

As I read about the God in whom Dawkins doesn’t believe, I find myself thinking ‘I don’t believe in that God either.’

And as for his view of Jesus, well, his only sources are the same ones you or I use. The Gospels. As I look at them I see no evidence of Jesus rebelling against this God. He quite simply doesn’t think God, or Yahweh is like that.

I very much doubt too many people who call themselves Christians would read about the god described in The God Delusion and say ‘yup, that is the God I believe in.’

But sometimes the way I’ve heard him described is a bit too close for comfort. God is all too often described as really angry, but Jesus calms God down. He says “I’ll take their punishment instead, God!” I’m sure it’s not really intended, but the message subtly delivered in such a Gospel is not that God loves us and wants to rescue us. It’s that God is someone we need to be saved from. Jesus somehow saves us from that God.

A Catholic priest was once asked what was the most common problem he encountered in 20 years of hearing confession and without hesitation he replied ‘God.’ He added that very few people, and it’s not just Catholics behave as if God is a God of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and compassion. They see God as someone to cower before, not as someone worthy of our trust.

I’ve found myself saying this a few times in different setting recently, but for most of human history, gods haven’t been considered nice, good, loving. It’s not been good news when they show up. And 2000 years after Jesus, that sense remains, even amongst those who claim to follow him.

From the Christian perspective, Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. As the letter to Hebrews says at its very start, God has been trying to reach out to us in lots of different ways down through the ages, but finally he has chosen to speak to us through his Son, Jesus. Jesus acts like a lens through which we have to look at the rest of the Bible.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I too look at parts, say, of the Old Testament and think ‘you what?’

Nonetheless, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

From the Christian viewpoint, if your God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s not God.

 

And this matters. But I’m not thinking in terms of where you’re going in the next life. That’s a totally different question. The kind of God we worship affects the kind of people we become….

… here and now.

I don’t know if anyone bought or has read the book Naked Spirituality which I mentioned at the start of this series, but in it Brian McLaren mentions a study by a neuroscientist called Andrew Newberg and a therapist called Mark Robert Waldman called How God Changes Your Brain.

The parts of your brain which you exercise will come to dominate your thinking and shape the person you become. And Newman and Waldberg suggest that ‘Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain – particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate – where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system which is filled with aggression and fear. It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.’

Sometimes people blame lots of the problems of the world on religion. That’s not the conclusion Newberg and Waldman come to. They conclude ‘the enemy is not religion; the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism and prejudicial fear – be it secular, religious or political.’

But that does give us a hint as to why we worship in the first place.

God does not need our worship.

We do. Worship affects us.

Worship shapes us. And that’s why it’s important to get a right impression of the God we worship. For what we worship, or what our God is like shapes us.

What we truly worship affects how we live. Who we become.

 

That’s not just new, modern, scientific thinking. You can trace it all the way back to the scriptures. I John 4:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God… because God is love.

We’re loving because our God is like that, our God is shaping us, changing us into his image.

And what is our God like? God is love.

Last time out we looked at awe, wonder, worship, O through looking at creation or creativity. I encouraged you to take time to allow yourself to be wowed. To give space to allow yourself to be filled with awe and allow that to lead you to worship to the creator.

The problem with that is that really that’s a pretty spontaneous thing. We can create opportunities for it to happen, but you can’t really force it. Sometimes you just won’t feel it. And it can be pretty hard to make that space in our day to day, busy lives.

But are there things we can do, practices in our normal, routine of daily living that can help to nurture more awe and wonder in our daily living. I would say there are.

That is what Paul is suggesting we do in the reading we shared from Romans this morning.

Overall he theme of the letter can be summed up as everyone, no matter who they are, is invited into a new relationship with God. We erect all kinds of different barriers to divide us and say we’re not like them, we’re right they’re wrong, we’re good, they’re evil. And Paul says none of them matter to God whatsoever. God loves all of us and has invited all of us into relationship with Himself.

Paul spends the bulk of 11 chapters trying to explain that. He covers a huge amount of ground. He talks about God’s mercy, the ways in which God wants to put us in right relationship with himself, he speaks about the death and resurrection of Jesus, about the role of the Spirit, about God plans for his whole creation, and how even our sin and rejection of God doesn’t get in the way. In fact somehow or other God uses it as part of his rescue plan.

Romans has been interpreted lots of different ways. People have tried to follow some kind of logical flow to what Paul says. It’s not easy. I would suggest that because there isn’t one. It’s not really one big argument. It’s a series of short ones. He tries one analogy after another. One idea seems to work, then he runs into a problem, so he tries something else, but that doesn’t fully express what he’s trying to say either. He tries another idea but there’s a problem with that…

 

The he hits a sentence which doesn’t sound like it’s going to end well.

‘For God has bound everyone over to disobedience…’

What possible good can follow that?

But he’s not finished, because he adds ‘so that God can have mercy on them all!’

He’s spent 11 chapters trying to explain this stuff and every time he’s tried it’s broken down because every time he realises he’s not doing God’s goodness and mercy justice. It’s like he’s climbing and climbing and climbing and suddenly he reaches a summit, he looks over the edge and the view is far greater than he realised. However wide a picture he tries to create of God’s love and mercy, he just can’t fit it in. It’s wider than he can possible know.

And at this point it’s like he just says ‘I give up’.

It’s like God takes all his analysis, all his explanation, and says yup, that’s all well and good. But why don’t you just face it. You’ll never comprehend it all. As he says elsewhere, he’ll never grasp how high and wide and long and deep the love of Christ really is. So having done his best he gives up on the theology and turns to poetry.

And there it is… that little word… O

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

“Who has known the mind of the Lord?

Or who has been his counsellor?”

“Who has ever given to God that God should repay them?”

For from him and through him and for him are all things.

To him be the glory forever! Amen.

 

He realises he’s never going to get his head around it. However merciful he tries to make God, God will always be more merciful. However loving he tries to describe God, he will always be more loving. However good he makes the good news, it’ll always be better than that. All you can do is stop and be filled with awe and wonder and worship. It’s an O moment.

If your God is a tyrant always waiting to punish you that will affect how you worship.

But how should that worship of a God like this express itself?

He doesn’t say ‘in view of God’s mercy make sure you spend an hour a day reading your Bible’

Or in view of God’s mercy make sure you spend your time on your knees praying.’

It’s much more basic than that. Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.

Not offer your mind.  

Not offer your spirit, even

Offer your bodies.

You can’t get more basic than that. But what does it mean?

It’s another one of those examples of how the Message puts it so well. Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. 

One of the first theological battles that threatened the church in it’s early days was an idea call Gnosticism. I’m not going into it fully but their basic message was that spiritual stuff was good, the physical stuff was bad. This displayed itself in two ways. Some of them would treat their bodies really badly. They would hurt themselves, to show they saw the body as bad. Others thought that because the body was bad it didn’t matter what you do with your body. Anything goes. Christianity and Judaism before it didn’t like that approach. Physical stuff matters. God likes stuff. He made it.

The Gnostics lost the battle, but in some ways won the war. Because right down to the present there is still this divide between sacred and secular. Between spiritual stuff and the rest of life. But God is interested in what we do with our bodies.

I grew up in quite a legalist culture. People for example didn’t drink or didn’t smoke. If you asked people why, if they had a spiritual reason it was because the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. Which was fine. But oddly we never heard much about gluttony. How we treat our bodies matters.

As I prepared and wrote this I realised I need to be challenged on this as much as anyone. I’m not suggesting we return to the kind of legalism I grew up.

But how do we care for our bodies?

In what we eat?

In what we drink?

In exercise (where we can).

In our sleep patterns?

If we think of them as a gift from God, surely part of our acceptance of that gift is to look after ourselves.

 

Last time out I mentioned that a good definition of worship is ‘I am not in control… and it’s wonderful.’ Worshipping God with our bodies might involve thinking about how we go about our day. To recognise that all of life is lived in the presence of God.

One practice that might help us is to give God the first or at least an early word in the day. I’m not talking about hours of prayer at the start of the day. But I imagine we at least have those moments;

perhaps whilst waiting for the kettle to boil,

whilst we’re stood in the shower,

cleaning our teeth,

stuck in that traffic jam whatever.

Just take a moment to thank God for the gift of the new day.

 

Thing is that can all too quickly fade by coffee break. A practice that has always been part of the Christian tradition is the idea of fixed hour prayer. In the early years of the church it was encouraged to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, at fixed points. I know some people who set an alarm to remind them to say even just one or two sentences of praise and thanks to God.

If that seems a bit overzealous for you, what about meal times? Perhaps you might find the practice of saying grace at meal times helps to put you in touch with the one from who the good things in your life come.

It might be last thing at night, as your head flops onto the pillow and you offer to God what’s gone well, or not so well throughout the day. You say ‘I might fall asleep?’ Perhaps. But how many parents feel bothered about their child falling asleep in their arms? Why should God be any different?

 

None of this is prescriptive. I’m not saying you should and must do all or even some of them.

Really it’s something we need to figure out for ourselves. Patterns that suit me won’t suit you. Your routine is different to mine. But they’re all ways of acknowledging that there is a God and you’re not it.

One practice, and I realise that in many ways I’m preaching to the converted here, that is relevant here is Sabbath. You might expect a minister to say that, but it is true. Work and rest in balance makes us healthy. I’m not even saying it has to be a Sunday. Mine isn’t.

But the mere act of stopping can be an act of worship. Because it is a way of recognising that the whole world does not depend on you.

You stopped and the world kept spinning.

However the flip side of that is also important. Our work. Back when I worked in other non-church environments, one of the things I used to think did a lot of harm to people’s witness was when they didn’t put the effort into their work. When they made bad employees. Your work can also be an act of worship, if you do it as if you were doing it for God. Offer it up to him, saying what do you reckon? God isn’t one of those parents who, when you get 99% wants to know all about the one you got wrong. God takes delight in us, when we offer the best we can.

 

Whatever ways we choose, there will be times when it feels routine and ritualistic. That’s ok.

Sometimes you’ll wonder if it makes any difference whatsoever. That’s fine.

But trust me, over time it will start to make a difference to you. They create little windows which give you space for a bit of awe, wonder, worship. A bit of O.

And that is healthy. And if you stick with it, it will start to shape the person you’re becoming.

 

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: O (Part 1)

child-in-awe-r1

Reading: Psalm 19

Nice You Tube video to introduce theme here

When was the last time something made you stop and think ‘wow’?

What sort of things inspire awe or wonder in you?

There is something wonderful about how so many things inspire awe in children. Mummy… bird, car, tree whatever. But all too soon it fades. It loses its novelty. What fascinates soon becomes commonplace. We get used to it.

Yet still some things retain the power to inspire us. Maybe it’s a work of art. A piece of music, painting, sculpture, a piece of writing maybe. A while ago Jools and I were in London and saw a place called choccywoccydoodah and I saw these. Schnauzers… made of chocolate. How amazing is that?

choccy dogs

It might be a sublime piece of sporting brilliance, perhaps admiring the way a Paralympian overcomes adversity to achieve something amazing. Or a Roger Federer backhand.

Or perhaps we turn to the natural world. That’s what the little collage at the start was about. Last year Julie and I went walking in Austria and the scenery was spectacular. My father-in-law used to have a marine fish task. I could have watched it for hours and not got bored. The sheer diversity of colour, design, whatever…

Or perhaps we find wonder by looking into the night sky. Thinking about our universe. Even our solar system is just vast. The space craft New Horizons travelled at speeds from 50,000 to 160,000 km/h and took 91/2 years to reach Pluto. And that isn’t even the edge of our solar system. The outer edge of our solar system is called the Oort cloud. Theoretically it will take Voyager 1 300 years to reach that and 30,000 years to pass through it. That’s just our solar system.

 

And you… you are amazing. This complex mix of dust and stars; of systems and components that make up the human body. I’m told the various chemicals which make up a human body have a market value of less than £3.50. Yet the average adult body contains enough energy to power 30 nuclear bombs. Try remembering that next time you feel a bit tired.

But just as fascinating is when we go small. And I mean small. For a long time science searched for the building block which makes up anything. They thought they had found it when the atom was discovered.

Atoms are tiny. Millions fit on the head of a pin. There are more atoms in a cup of water than there are cups of water in the world’s oceans.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Then they discovered that atoms could be broken down into smaller units. And those smaller units could be broken down into smaller units still. In fact more than 200 subatomic particles have been discovered.

And at that level things get really weird…

There are particles which come into existence for the tiniest fraction of a second, then disappear. We don’t know where they come from or where they go.

There are particles which move from point A to point B. But they don’t travel the distance between those two points.

Some travel from point A to point B by every possible route, and only reveal which route they took when they’re observed. *

If your head hurts that’s ok. My point is that whether you go big or small, there is so much to inspire awe and wonder in our world.

The thing about awe and wonder is that sense that words cannot do the experience justice. Our best descriptions fall short. No words can recreate the beauty of that sunset or that waterfall. Photographs rarely even come close to doing them justice.

This week I came across a quote from the philosopher Wittgenstein who said it was impossible to convey the aroma of freshly ground coffee in words. **

Einstein said that anyone who is not lost in awe and wonder at the power of the mind behind the universe is as much good as a burnt out candle.

That is when we turn to art. In the case of this morning’s reading to poetry and music.

In this morning’s reading we see the one who wrote the Psalm would have agreed with Einstein…

The heavens declare the glory of God.

The skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech

Night after night they display knowledge

They have no speech; they use no words

No sound is heard from them

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth

Their words to the end of the world.

We continue our time exploring different aspects or seasons in the spiritual life through the 12 words on the screen. In the last few weeks we have considered the word Here. That’s where we begin.

Where we are.

We don’t have to get ourselves to some other place to encounter God. God comes to meet us here.

In this place.

At this time.

As we are.

We are invited to wake up to the presence of God who is with us in all things, at all times, whether we notice his presence or not, whether we recognise his presence or not.

We’re moving on to our next word. What are good, proper responses to this God?

We could have chosen to start with another idea, I suppose, but surely one appropriate response is awe, wonder, praise, worship.

There are a number of words which could have been used. Hallelujah for instance. But the one on which we will consider over the next few sermons is O.

 

We have used it and will use it quite a bit in our worship this morning. We sang O enter then his gates with praise. Unfortunately Baptist Praise and Worship changes the words in the chorus to All Creatures of our God and King to Now praise him. I always remembered it as O praise Him. Our closing hymn is O for a thousand tongues to sing.

A tiny word, yet it can be used to express so many emotions.

We can use it in gratitude at someone’s generosity. O, what a lovely gift.

It can express relief when we are comforted O, I’m so glad you’re here.

It might an expression of surprise or shock. Had you come in to my office when I was boogying and air-guitaring round the place to the Coldplay track we played at the top of the sermon, and I don’t hear you enter, I’m stopped short and say O, I didn’t see you there.

We might even use it in pain, O, my heart is breaking.

 But it’s also the word we use for awe in the presence of beauty. O, what a sunrise. ***

In fact it’s almost not a word. It’s like the shape our mouths make it wonder. It’s like a gasp, or the sound of our breath being taken away. O.

The spiritual life will go through many seasons, but certainly awe and wonder should be a component of any healthy spirituality. It was there in the Psalms as the writer looked into the heavens, perhaps given some of the imagery at sunrise, at his breath was taken away.

But he didn’t just wonder at creation for its own sake. Instead, like Einstein he was lost in wonder at the power of the mind behind it all. He wasn’t driven to worship of the creation, but of the creator.

In the Psalmist’s mind creation’s not saying look at me, it’s pointing to the One beyond it, whose handiwork creation is. Just as we might be able to tell something about an artist by looking at their handiwork, so creation, without words, simply be being what it is, doing what it does, speaks eloquently about God, for God.

We sometimes speak of the Bible as the word of God. But actually the Bible itself speaks of lots of things being a word of God. I mean, THE Word is Jesus, but the first word, if you like, is creation itself. ‘In the Bible the whole universe is God’s megaphone.’****

But that voice needs interpreting. What is it saying?

The first thing, is that it is presenting a picture of a joyful God. I’ll focus more on this in one of the other weeks. But there is a certain joyfulness, playfulness about those opening words of the Psalms.

It’s possible for us to have this sense of God as serious, stern, angry, punishing. But joy is really the first emotion the Bible attaches to God. The scriptures start with God delighting in his creation. God keeps doing things and saying ‘O that’s good.’

Have you ever done a trick for a small child, or shown them something new and the child keeps saying ‘again.’ One of my Bible reading notes which has stuck with me for many years used that picture of God looking at creation and with each new tree, flower, fish or whatever, God is saying ‘again, do it again.’

Creation displays a certain playfulness and wonder in God. When you’re lost in wonder at creation, God’s joining you in it. He’s right there with you saying ‘yeah, it’s awesome, innit?’

If you don’t mind me saying so, some of the imagery might actually be considered a bit risqué. If I wrote a song with this kind of imagery, I’m not sure it would get included in the next edition of Songs of Fellowship. The picture of the athlete running his race, fine. But the sun rising like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber?

 

In the first chunk of this Psalm there is nothing specifically Israelite about it. Even the word for God is quite a generic name for God. If you look at the church Bible’s you’ll see from verse 7 onwards the Psalm speaks of the LORD (capitals). When you see that in an English Bible, the Hebrew word is Yahweh, the Israelite name for God. The name gave Moses at the burning bush. The word for God in verse 1 is El, which could be a name for any deity.

In fact it’s possible that this was borrowed or nicked from a song or poem about a God called Shamash, a Mesopotamian sun God. He was also linked with giving King Hammarubi his code of laws. In their mythology Shamash was said to lie at night in the sea in the arms of his beloved.

Either way the image the Psalm uses for the sun rising and sweeping across the sky, is of the newly-wed bloke, emerging from the boudoir with a bit of a swagger or a spring in his step, cos he’s had a bit of lurving. So it is overall quite a playful image in the passage.

Also when the Bible speaks of God, his glory and creation, power has a part to play in that. Definitely in comparison to us.

For example in Isaiah (40), the prophet has God saying…

‘to whom will you compare me. Or who is my equal?

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens, who created all these?

He who brings out the starry host one by one,

And calls them each by name

Because of his great power and mighty strength

not one of them is missing.’

Other people around them worshipped the sun, moon and stars. The Israelites? Pah! Their God gave them permission to come out.

One of the greatest pieces of poetry in the Bible is found in Job, starting from chapter 38. Some of the words in Indescribable are taken from it. After almost 37 chapters of God being questioned, God enters the scene and begins with these words…

‘where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations;

Who marked off it’s dimensions,

who stretched a measuring line across it…

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,

loosen Orion’s belt or lead out the bear with it’s cubs?

 

One of my favourite bits in the Message paraphrase can be found here. The ancient world saw the sea as a source of great terror, of chaos which could sweep them away. But it was nothing compared with God. In fact this God treats it like a baby…

And who took charge of the ocean  

when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?

That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds,    

 and tucked it in safely at night.

Then I made a playpen for it,     

a strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose,

And said, ‘Stay here, this is your place.     

Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.’

So certainly the power of God might be source of awe and wonder.

But by itself power might not be a good thing.

Not every one who has power need be good.

Not everyone who has power uses it well.

That’s why almost always, even in the Bible when people encounter God, their first response is fear. For the vast majority of human history, when gods have shown up, it’s not generally been considered a good or desirable thing.*****

That’s a barrier God has to get past to reach us. We know what we do with power and fear God might do the same.

But that’s only part of the message that creation is proclaiming about God. That’s just one part of the glory.

Ever noticed how two people can look at the same thing and see something entirely different? Or the same person might react differently depending on their mood. You get a bit of this in the Bible. This is one of those situations.

This is not the only place in the Old Testament which uses the image of the sun making its way across the sky. But the other one is very different. You’ll find it again in Ecclesiastes…

Meaningless! Meaningless says the teacher.

Everything is meaningless..

Generations com and generations go;

But the earth remains forever;

The sun rises and the sun sets

And hurries back to where it rises…

It’s not so much of a swagger there. It’s like the sun, along with the whole world is on a treadmill. It finishes one day then has to rush back to be ready for morning again, there’s a sense of ‘if I must.’ Same old, same old.

Sometime we’ll do Ecclesiastes and I’ll talk about why that is. But where the teacher looks at the world and sees monotony, the Psalmist looks at the same world and sees that God is reliable, and trustworthy. God’s wisdom gives meaning and order to the world. The regular rhythms and seasons, might seem like same old, same old. But actually they are reminders of God’s trustworthiness, of his promise that as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease. This God is not just powerful. This God uses power wisely, faithfully, well!

And if God can be trusted with the ordering of creation, he concludes, God can be trusted with his life. That’s the link between creation and the law. For the same God who brings order to the world seeks to guide us, as we find our place within that world.

The same God is behind both creation and Torah. If I were to ask us to think of images to describe law, very few of us I imagine would think of it in terms of pure gold and the sweetness of honey. We often think of law as a limiter, a kind of harsh, grudging thing.

That’s not how the Psalmist sees it. He sees it as God seeking to guide him into life. It warns him when he is in danger of bringing disaster on himself. By following what God asks of him, he says he finds reward. Not in a kind of duty sense where I do this, so God has to do that. It’s just that in the Torah he finds God’s way of giving him real life, the kind of life God intended. God is not just a rule giver who likes to boss us around. He is actively seeking to guide us away from our own destructive tendencies.

I love how The Message translates verse 13.

Keep me from stupid sins; from thinking I can take over your work.

He looks at the order of creation and sees that the world works by functioning according to God’s wisdom, God’s faithful ordering. When he looks at the world and sees how God orders it, what makes his think he could do better?

And we see so much more than the Psalmist could ever know. Our world is much more weird and wonderful and mysterious than he could ever have fathomed, and we too can be moved to wonder at the mind, at the God behind it all.

I wouldn’t seek to tell our musicians how to play their instruments, they’re better at it than me. I wouldn’t think of telling Brian and Chris how to do their gardens. They’re so much better than me. And the Psalmist uses that same logic with God.

He can do it so much better than me. Why not trust him with it? The world works when it follows God’s wisdom. Why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t we?

We live in a world where knowledge and wisdom are so often confused. We think they can be found in books. For the vast majority of history they didn’t have books. They couldn’t read. They just looked at nature. They looked at how the world worked.

That’s where Jesus went to for wisdom. So much of his teaching came from observing the world around them and how it worked.

Technology has helped us to harness nature, to train it, to subdue it. That’s well and good. But a vital part of a healthy spirituality is to allow ourselves to stop and have those O moments.

We do well to stop and wonder at how the world works. Whether in its vastness or its smallness. To allow ourselves to be wowed. To allow ourselves to have our breath taken away in wonder.

Spiritual practice. Take time to indulge in something that wows you.

Not as an end in itself, but to allow it to point to the One behind it all. The One who calls all things into being and sustains all things. To allow ourselves to be drawn into worship of one who does it all so much better.

I heard this week a definition of worship as a way of practising ‘I am not in control… and it’s wonderful.’ There will be other seasons, other words, other postures in our spiritual life and journey. But awe, wonder, O, should be part of that journey.

When we are drawn into O, into awe and wonder, we recognise that all things are held in the hands of one who does all things well. The universe does not depend on us. When we take time to wonder, we see that, and come to see not only his power, but his wisdom, love and faithfulness. He holds all things, what makes us think he can’t hold us? We can step into the knowledge that in his hands we are held and we are safe.

 

Notes * Everything is Spiritual II: Rob Bell; ** Faith and the Creeds: Alister McGrath; *** Naked Spirituality: Brian McLaren; **** What is the Bible: Rob Bell; ***** Richard Rohr, but I can’t remember where

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: Here (Part 3)

calivin hobbes

Readings: Exodus 24: 12-18; Matthew 17: 1-9; 2 Peter 1: 16-21

Most of us, I imagine, at some point experience the sensation of someone not being quite ‘with us’. You know what I mean; they’re physically present, but their mind is somewhere else completely.

I had a really great example of this back when I lectured in universities. I taught a statistics class to Sociology students. It was a tough gig for a couple of reasons. One is that it often comes as a surprise to Sociology students that they need study stats at all. They thought they were just going to sit around talking Marx and Feminism. I imagine quite a few thought they’d finished with Maths forever. Then I come along….

The other was that this particular class was from 4-6pm. That’s the lecturer’s equivalent of the ‘graveyard shift.’ You know they’d rather be at home watching Pointless or whatever the equivalent was in those days. Probably Neighbours. Actually the lecturer would probably prefer that too… 

The class involved using spreadsheets, so it was in a computer lab Students sat in swivel chairs with no arms. In one particular class a student fell asleep. And I mean asleep. He was completely out of it. I couldn’t miss him. He was in the front row.

The top half of his body started rolling around in the chair. I was tempted to wake him up with a scare. But I was a nice tutor and didn’t really want to embarrass him. But at the same time there was a good chance that he was about to fall off the chair and hurt himself. Could he make an insurance claim for me causing injury by boring him to sleep? Eventually he woke with an enormous ‘wuhhhhh!’ which nearly gave me a heart attack!

To all intents and purposes, he was there. If you looked at the register there was a tick by his name. But he was really somewhere else entirely. As a result he missed what was one of the most wonderful pieces of lecturing ever delivered in a British University!

 

It’s not just in run of the mill things that this can happen. Often it’s even easier to be distracted, or not quite ‘there’ on really big occasions. Sportsmen always talk of the need to savour the big occasion, the final or whatever, because it’s a special day and you might never get the chance to experience it again. But it passes so fast and often they don’t really enjoy or savour it.

We’ve recently started a new series called Encountering God in 12 Words. You might think of them as different seasons or stages in the spiritual life. We’re asking are there practices or postures which can help us nurture our relationship with God in everyday life?

I’m not talking about big things which require lots of time, effort and willpower. Just simple things we can build into what we’re already doing. That’s what the 12 words in the circles on the screen are about.

The first word we’ve been looking at is ‘here.’

If it doesn’t sound too obvious, here is the only place we can begin because here is where we are. But we don’t need to get somewhere else, because here is where God comes to meet us.

Where we are.

In this place.

At this time.

I speak of God coming to meet us, but this is not about God ‘showing up’ like God hasn’t been there all along. It’s more about God waiting for us to show up. This is about us waking up to the presence of the God who has been with us all along.

Something you’ll hear or read a lot about today is ‘mindfulness’ and living ‘in the present moment.’ It’s often associated with Eastern religious traditions, like Buddhism. But variations of mindfulness have been part of every major religious tradition. Including Christianity. In fact, it can be traced back to Jesus himself.

When we worked through the Sermon on the Mount we reflected on what Jesus had to say about worry. Jesus spoke about ‘considering the birds and the flowers.’ That’s a classic mindfulness text about living in the present.

Mindfulness is being advocated in all sorts of other, more secular environments too, as helpful for particularly good mental health. A couple of months back Time Magazine ran a special edition entirely devoted to it.

But, of course, you might be thinking, Andrew, of course I live in the present. When else would I live? But psychologists tell us that most of us live ‘everywhen except the present moment.’ We spend a lot of our time dwelling on the present or worrying about the future.

 

So that I am not misunderstood, I want to make a distinction between living in the moment and living for the moment. We sometimes speak of people who are ‘happy-go-lucky’ as living for the moment. However, living for the moment can be reckless, if it means acting without thought for the consequences or who you might hurt.

 

Living in the moment is different. It’s about recognising life is a gift. This moment, this day will come around only once and it’ll never return. From a faith perspective it’s about being awake to the possibility of what God might have to say to us at any given moment.

It’s that idea of being attentive, about waking up to the presence of God with us, that I’m talking about when I’m thinking of the word ‘here.’

This idea of living in the moment, of noticing and appreciating what we are experiencing comes up in the readings Gill read for us this morning. Two directly describe quite significant spiritual moments. In Exodus it’s God’s appearance to Moses and the Israelites at Sinai. In Matthew it’s a mysterious moment in the life of Jesus, witnessed by 3 of the disciples, called the Transfiguration. In our third reading, Peter, one of the witnesses to the Transfiguration, looks back to that event and explains something of how he, in time, came to understand or interpret what he had seen.

 

This idea of being present, being here, living in this present moment occurs right at the start of the Exodus passage. In your church Bibles Exodus 24: 12 reads The Lord said to Moses, “Come up the mountain to me, and while you are here, I will give you two stone tablets which contain all the laws that I have written for the instruction of the people.”

I’m no Hebrew scholar. But I am reliably informed that’s not quite what the Hebrew says. It really reads something like this…

‘Come up to me on the mountain and be on the mountain.’

It seems an odd thing to say. If Moses goes up the mountain, of course he’ll be on the mountain. Where else would he be?

But when rabbis interpreted this passage they saw something of the body in one place, mind in another, like the student with which I began.

Last week we considered the passage at the start of Exodus when God calls Moses at the burning bush. I touched on how reluctant Moses was to accept this call. Moses had a lot of reasons why God had picked the wrong guy. Nonetheless, once he gets started Moses throws himself into the task of liberating the people.

But although his story is thousands of years old, Moses suffers from a very modern condition.

Moses had poor work/life balance. Moses is a workaholic. His mind is always on the people.

Between leaving Egypt and returning to rescue the people, Moses had married a woman called Zipporah. Moses did well. For Zipporah’s father, Jethro, also turns out to be a real blessing to him. He challenges Moses on how he’s working tells him he’s mad. If he isn’t careful he’ll burn himself into frazzle. Jethro tells Moses to wise up and delegate more of his work. (That’s my translation, not King James).

 

All of us probably know someone with an indispensability complex.

Actually I’m being generous. Most of us probably have an indispensability complex sometimes. We think ‘if I don’t do it, no-one will.’

Sometimes they might feel justified in thinking that way. Certainly Moses could have been forgiven for thinking that. He left Aaron and Hur with the people to go up the mountain, but by the time he returned the people were already worshipping a golden calf!

Moses is on the mountain almost a week before God invites him to approach the cloud. He’ll be up there some time. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that it would have been possible for Moses to be physically on the mountain, but his mind is back down in the valley, wondering how long this will take, what the people are up to when he’s not around, what messes he’ll have to sort out when he goes back.

The passage talks about Moses receiving the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments on it. But actually Moses receives some very detailed instructions on constructing the tabernacle which the people will carry with them throughout the wilderness journey. So as Moses listens, I’d be surprised if he’s not wondering how he’s going to manage this job, or weighing up who be the best person for that role.

God knows Moses well enough to know that however amazing an experience this must have been, that’s how Moses’ mind works. So God says ‘Moses, come up here, and I want your full attention. I want you here, mind and body.’ There will be a time for returning to the people, and getting to work. But right now God wants him to be attentive to this moment, to what’s happening here and now. God knows Moses well enough to know he could allow this moment to pass him by and not savour it. Not learn its lessons.

 

The same is true of the Gospel passage. There are a lot of deliberate echoes from the Exodus passage. Moses takes Joshua, Israel’s next leader up the mountain with him. Jesus takes the first generation of his closest followers. There’s all the details: the cloud, the light, the voice. Those raised on the tradition of the wilderness wandering stories would have recognised those similarities. They knew they’d heard this kind of thing before, and knew what had followed.

This is one of the more ‘otherworldly’ parts of the Gospels. What precisely did the disciples see? How did they know it was Moses and Elijah with Jesus? We’re not told. They just did.

Often when people talk about this passage they talk of how we can’t always live on the mountaintop. We can’t make the great experience last forever. We might think Peter is living too much in the present moment.

But that’s not quite what’s going on here. Peter says ‘it’s good for us to be here. Let’s build three shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus.’

But Peter is not thinking about fixed, solid places. Peter is picking up the echoes from the story he’s been taught since he was a child. Peter is talking about building tents, what they’d have called tabernacles.

Remember the background to the Moses story. God gives instructions for building a… tabernacle. It wasn’t like the temple they built in Jerusalem. This was a tent which they took with them. It travelled with them. It was a place they would go the meet with God in the wilderness, when they had left Sinai behind.

That’s what Peter is hoping to recreate. Peter doesn’t hope to stay on the mountain forever. It’s more he wants to preserve the moment. We might say he wants to bottle it. He wants something to take with them wherever they go.

The life Jesus was living was inevitably leading to trouble and Jesus knows it. Just before this incident Jesus starts to make the predictions of what lies ahead when they get to Jerusalem. How he’s going to be arrested, tried and killed. Virtually every remaining scene in Matthew’s Gospel is full of misunderstanding, hostility, opposition, tension. Perhaps Peter has begun to notice this too. It’s not that Peter wants to stay there. He just wants to be able to maintain the feeling, to know the similar assurance of God’s presence when things get tough, as they inevitably do.

And who can blame him?

Do we never wish we could bottle that good feeling?

How quickly does that lovely holiday feeling disappear on the first morning back at work?

How quickly do we go back to feeling like we’ve never been away?

In a way what Peter is trying to do is like a classical equivalent of those people with a camera phone at a concert, trying to preserve the memory of seeing their favourite band. But whilst they concentrate on preserving the memory, they don’t fully experience and appreciate the 2 hours they spend at the show. Peter is trying to find a way to preserve the experience, but he’s missing the moment. He’s trying so hard to ensure he remembers being there and that he’s not actually there. His mind is somewhere else. That voice ‘this is my son, listen to him’ is designed to draw him back. Jesus never wrote a book – wanted them to live it, experience it.

Of course, it’s possible we might wonder if we can learn too much from these incidents. They’re quite far removed from what I imagine most of our experience would be.

But in a sense there is an underlying problem which we do share with Moses and Peter, which also draws on ideas like mindfulness and living in the present. It’s about our ability or inability to distinguish between two things.

The urgent and the important.

We can let life slip by and miss out on so much by confusing the two.

Urgent tasks are the demands we place on ourselves, or which others place on us, or that we even just perceive people are placing on us.

The important things are those which are ultimately valuable. Those things when we look back and say ‘I wish I’d spent more time doing….’ Often we’re so caught up in the urgent that we miss what’s important.

That was the risk Moses faced. If he allowed his attention to be distracted by the urgent stuff that being leader placed upon him, that he risked missing out on the important experience with God. Peter, distracted by what Jesus has just warned them lies ahead in Jerusalem, perhaps focussing on what lay ahead, risked failing to realise that this moment had an importance all of its own. We might be stunned to think that such a problem could arise. But both passages suggest it could.

Actually research suggests the human mind has a way of allowing an urgent task to filter out the important. Let me show you a video to show what I mean

Firstly how many had seen this or something similar before?

If you hadn’t, how many spotted the gorilla?

Did you notice the other stuff?

The guy is the gorilla outfit was blatantly obvious. But half of the people didn’t notice him because they were focussed on the urgent task of counting passes. I only found that version when I was looking for the clip in my preparation. I missed the curtain and the player, because I was focussed on seeing the gorilla.

 

That danger of failing to distinguish between the urgent and important can enter into our relationship with God. In his book Prayer: Does it make a difference Phillip Yancey writes ‘it occurred to me one day that though I often worry about whether or not I sense the presence of God, I give little thought to whether God senses the presence of me

How often, when I pray, is God having an ‘Andrew’s not quite there’ moment. Maybe you find the same. We’re invited into the presence of God, yet rather than truly accepting the invitation, the urgent takes over, the list of things that need done are at the forefront of my mind, and I’m not there in the present moment. My body is here, but my mind and my spirit are not where God has come to meet me. Here.

Our age sees busyness as a virtue. And ministers are amongst the worst with that. When I ask other ministers how things are going, nine times out of ten the first thing they will comment on is how they’re ‘busy’. There are times in minister’s gathering when part of me wants to respond ‘really? I’m not!’ just to see how uncomfortable the meeting would become.

But it is really easy for the busyness and urgency of life to shout loudest and crowd out those moments when God has been real, present, or when you’ve been blessed with something good in your day. We aren’t alert, or awake to the good in our lives. We aren’t here. When you do that, all you’ll ever notice is when things go wrong, when God feels distant.

Yet that suggests why being awake to those moments of closeness, being here, awake, to the presence of God is important. Because those moments can’t be bottled. They will pass. Life will not always be lived in those moments. We will go through other seasons, when other words will be more dominant in our spiritual experience. Sometimes tougher words like sorry, help, when, why, no. Words we’ll look at later in the series.

There will be tougher seasons. And as I said right at the start of this, it’s very human to want to rush through those seasons. But often it’s not how it works. God will be waiting to meet us there too. But if we don’t take time to grow aware of his presence in those moments when he feels close, they can’t sustain or strengthen us then. The purpose of those moments of closeness is to give us hope when we face the dark paths, when seeing God at work and hearing what he might be saying to us seems so much more difficult.

That’s what we get in the reading from II Peter. In years to come he would look back on that moment of closeness he experienced at the Transfiguration as a time when he caught a glimpse of just who this Jesus in whom he had placed his trust really was.

Years later he would write to a bunch of people who saw nothing but trouble, who were beginning to doubt it all and were beginning to wonder whether they had backed the wrong horse.

And in response, Peter takes them to that moment and what he had learned from experience, when he’d seen Jesus transformed. When he had caught a glimpse of the God with whom he was dealing.

Jesus told them not to talk about it until they’d seen him rise from the dead. It’s good wisdom not to speak too readily or too quickly about those moments when God has seemed close to you. Better to ponder, better to give them space to sink in, to percolate.

For truly for Peter it only made sense when he reached the end of the Gospel and experienced a somewhat different hilltop experience.

On this mountain, Peter saw Jesus revealed in glory; On that hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus was a figure of fun, displayed in shame.

On this mountain his clothes shone white; On that hill outside Jerusalem, they were stripped off, and soldiers gambled for them.

On this mountain he wass flanked by two of Israel’s greatest heroes; On that hill outside Jerusalem, he’d be flanked by two terrorists.

On this mountain a bright cloud overshadowed the scene; On that hill outside Jerusalem, darkness comes upon the land.

On this mountain Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is; by that hill outside Jerusalem, he’d be denying he even knows the man.

On this mountain God himself declares that this is my son; On that hill outside Jerusalem, the only one to declare that this was God’s son would be one of his executioners.

Somehow or other, when he saw the Risen Christ, in some way recognisable, in other ways transformed, Peter witnessed the power of God to transform those who entered the darkness trusting in him.

Those experiences took him into the path of discipleship which lay ahead, which had moments of closeness, but so much darkness too. But by starting here, by waking up to the presence of God in those moments of closeness, he was offered light to shine in the darkness of those darker seasons when other words come to the forefront of our spiritual consciousness.

It is here God wants to begin. Where we are, as we are. To show up, to allow ourselves to be in the place where we can experience him. It can’t be forced, but if we open ourselves to it, it happens in God’s own time. It can’t be bottled. We can’t take it with us in that sense that we will always feel God nearby.

Pray for those occasions, and relish them when they come. But don’t try to preserve them. For when God, in his grace, gives them, for if we start here and learn those lessons well, they can help sustain us in the journey ahead.

 

 

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: Here (Part 2)

04-Exodus_Burning-Bush_preview-imageryReading: Genesis 28: 10-22; Exodus 3: 1-15

About 10 years ago, Joshua Bell, one of the biggest-name solo violinists in the world, made news when he went busking in a Washington DC metro station. He played for almost 45 minutes. But he didn’t announce it. He went in disguise. He wore a baseball cap to hide his floppy hair and a t-shirt.

What do you think happened?

Well, you might imagine a crowd would develop. That some would think ‘ok, so I might be running late, but this guy is awesome. As the Guardian said at the time, had this been a Richard Curtis film, Bell would make the whole station come to a standstill, causing a spontaneous multiple epiphany as people realised the hollowness of their pathetic, materialistic lives and their spirits awoke up to a world of transcendent beauty.

But what did happen?

 

Well, whilst he played, 1097 walked past. The Washington Post, who were in on the experiment, counted them.

How many do you think stopped to listen for more than one minute?

7.

How much do you think he made from busking?

$52.17

$20 of that was from one individual who did recognise him. So from the others it was just $32.

However the point Bell was trying to make wasn’t so much that we’ve don’t appreciate real beauty and talent when it right in front of us, nor that we’ve lost the ability to stop and pay attention, though certainly those things might be true.

It’s more that we fail to notice these things when they turn up in the wrong place, where or when we don’t expect it.

Had Joshua Bell been in a concert hall, on a stage, in a tux and bow tie, he would have no problem being recognised. But dressed casually, in a tube station, when we’ve got somewhere else to be? Less easy.

It’s probably true. Location does have a part to play. I mean, have you ever had trouble recognising someone because they are not where you normally see them? I’m more likely to stop and listen for a few minutes to singers in the markets at Covent Garden, when I’m just browsing and not in a rush anywhere, than in a tube station.

There was a fascinating story in the news recently about how the opposite can also be true. We can think more highly of something, which is actually quite ordinary, if it is in a grand place. A 17 year old left a pair of glasses on the floor of a San Francisco art gallery and walked away.

But people thought they were part of the exhibition. They stopped and stared at them, considered their meaning, got down and took photos of them…

And I wonder…

might we fail to notice God’s presence with us, cos it seems like the wrong place, it’s not where we would expect to find him?

God is here, but we don’t see him, cos surely here is the wrong place?

Where we least expect him?

Last time we started a new series, looking at the nature of the ‘spiritual life’ through 12 words. Lots of people would say they are spiritual, even if they would not consider themselves religious. More people have experiences which they would describe as ‘spiritual’ than we might realise.

But experience can be deceptive. It’s unreliable. Besides most of life is not lived in the highs and lows of experience. Most of us spend most of our time living in the ‘ordinary’. If are created to be drawn into close personal relationship with God our creator and sustainer, it can’t be based purely on great experiences. Good as they are, their impact fades over time. Relationship with God is only sustainable if we can find it in the ordinary.

So, are there ways in which we can encounter God and nurture relationship with God in the everyday experience of life?

I’m not talking about heaping more things onto a ‘to do’ list or suggesting big things that require lots of time, freedom or self-discipline. I’m talking about simple, doable things that we can build in to what we’re already doing.

Well, that’s what the 12 words in the circle on the screen are about.

The first word I introduced last week was Here.

If it doesn’t sound too obvious, here is the only place we can begin because here is where we are.

We might wish we were somewhere else.

We might think we should be somewhere else.

But we’re not.

We’re here.

In this place; in this time; in these circumstances; with these joys and sorrows; these strengths and weaknesses.

Here.

 

And last time I suggested that was good news.

We don’t need to get ourselves somewhere else to meet with God.

God wants to meet us here.

Where we are.

That’s what the two passages Femi read for us this morning were about. God encountering people where they were. But they were the ‘wrong places.’ The places where did they not expect to find him.

 

But something just to make clear about this word here. This is not about God ‘showing up’ as if God wasn’t there all along. This is about us wakening up to the presence of the God who has there all along whether we noticed or not, whether we wanted him around or not.

Consider what Jacob says in the Genesis passage.

The LORD is here. He is in this place and I didn’t know it.

Last time I introduced you to a very brief prayer, where we allow ourselves to be open to God’s presence with us. It was…

Here I am, Lord

Here You are, Lord

Here we are together.

 

Neither Moses nor Jacob seemed like ideal candidates to have any kind of encounter with God. In many different ways they weren’t in the ‘right place.’

It was true about their geography or physical location. But it was also true if you considered their emotional, mental or spiritual state.

Take Jacob. He’s the son of Isaac. The grandson of Abraham. Abraham had received great promises from God. Land, descendants, that God would bless him and, through his family bless the world.

Sounds great.

But God had his work cut out. At the time God made the promise, Abraham had no kids, and there seemed little chance of any arriving.

But even when Isaac was born the trouble wasn’t over. It was hard to imagine a whole world being blessed through this family. They weren’t even very good at blessing each another.

Jacob was a twin. His brother was called Esau. It would fair to say they didn’t get on. The parents didn’t help because they had favourites. Isaac favoured Esau, their mother, Rebekah, favoured Jacob.

Up until this point there is very little to indicate that Jacob had any real interest in, or awareness of, the God of his grandfather. There are only really two, strange little stories we read of him to this point. One where he persuades his twin brother to give up the inheritance rights of the firstborn son, in exchange for some bread and lentil soup. The other is as Isaac is preparing to die. Rebekah and Jacob conspire to steal the blessing Isaac had prepared for Esau.

As we pick up the story Jacob is on the run from Esau. Their mother Rebekah has had to help Jacob escape. Esau wants to kill him.

This story occurs just as Jacob is about to leave the Promised Land. He’s returning to where Abraham had been when he first got his call. He’s going back to the place Abraham had been told to leave behind.

He stops for the night and decides to get some sleep. You might think it odd to have a stone for a pillow, but that’s what they would have had. No lovely, soft, duck down in those days.

The place where he stops is described as sacred. It might just be with hindsight, knowing what’s about to happen, that the writer says that. More likely it was a shrine or worship site for the gods of the people who lived there. It’s possible, from the dream, that it was the site of an ancient ziggurat, a worship area for Mesopotamian gods, with ramped sides. Perhaps that serves to highlight just how alone Jacob is out here.

That’s when he has his dream, of a stairway or ladder up to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending on it. He discovers that God is not just out there, distant and aloof, but is interested and connected with what is happening here and now.

But what was new and groundbreaking about this story was not the spectacular dream, but the promise that was given to Jacob.

I will be with you and protect you, wherever you go.

Jacob was raised in a world where gods were thought to be local. Everyone had their gods and their gods ruled over their land. When you entered someone else’s territory it was the area of their god.

That was part of Jacob’s story too. When Abraham had been called to leave behind home and family and set off to a place God would show him, it was a story about leaving behind their gods.

So it would make sense for him to not expect his god to in this place. When you leave the family behind, you leave the gods behind too. Away from home, from family, at the worship shrine of another god, Jacob could be forgiven for thinking he is leaving behind God. He could even think he is being banished by God. That perhaps he’s finished with God, or at least God is finished with him.

But here at Bethel, or Luz, Jacob makes a huge discovery.

This God could be with him wherever he was.

This God could be encountered anywhere.

Jacob did not have to get back there.

God could meet him here.

Wherever here was.

His story bear striking similarities to the account of Moses. Who knows how many times Moses had walked his sheep that way, before the encounter at the burning bush. We’re told again that the site was sacred. It was Sinai, the holy mountain.

But Moses shows no signs of being aware of that. He’s not looking for any kind of spiritual encounter. He too is separated from his people. If anything he’s trying to leave the past behind.

Moses was a bit of the Harry Potter of his day. I’m not saying he was a wizard or anything like that. For those who know a bit about Harry Potter, Moses was the original boy who lived. At a time when Pharaoh was putting all the male Hebrew children to death, Moses mother had rebelled. Then when she could hide him no longer she placed him in a basket on the river. He had been picked up by Pharoah’s daughter and wound up being raised by his own mother in the royal house.

But for all his privilege, Moses never forgot his roots. He despised how his people were being treated. One day he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and killed the Egyptian.

But this didn’t make him a hero. There may have been a bit of a ‘what’s this got to do with the posh boy at the palace’ but when he tried to settle a dispute between two Hebrews, he was not only told to get lost, it became clear that his murder was known. So he fled and that was how he ended up being a shepherd. That was why he was out in the desert.

Moses encounters God in the course of his ordinary working day. But he doesn’t go the bush looking for God. He’s just awake enough to notice something odd about the bush. When the rabbis talk about this story they say the bush has been burning the whole time, it’s just that this is the first time Moses notices it. Again this is not so much a story about God showing up. It’s about Moses waking up to the presence of the God who has been there all along.

But just like Jacob, when he’s far away, when he feels he’s on his own, when he thinks him and God are finished, when he’s least expecting it, he discovers he’s not out of the reach of God.

That’s the place where God meets him.

We get a sense of what Moses might have been thinking from God’s response.

Was he thinking that God doesn’t care?

That God is out there, not interested in what is happening to his people?

Either he doesn’t see or he doesn’t care?

God reminds them that he has seen.

He has heard their cry.

He is aware of their suffering.

This God is interested in here and now.

He’s as interested in what’s happening in Egypt as in the land he had promised Abraham.

But it’s another feature of the story I find interesting here. Take off your sandals for this is holy ground. It’s always seen as a sign of reverence that Moses takes off his shoes.

But why would that be seen as reverent?

Perhaps the shoes get in the way.

Perhaps the divine wants more connection, not less.

But even before that, how does Moses respond to his name being called from within the bush?

Here I am.

Neither Moses nor Jacob seemed in the right place to encounter God. Neither was in the right place physically, geographically. The places are described as sacred, but they show no signs of knowing it.

But neither did they seem in right place mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Neither of them had gone there looking for God.

Both were far from where they would have thought they needed to be. They were in the place where they least expected to encounter God.

But they didn’t need to get from that place to somewhere else to encounter God.

God met them where they were.

In fact, God had been with them all along, even though they never knew it, even though they never acknowledged it. Perhaps, even, when they didn’t want him.

 

We speak of God showing up. But if anything what these passages teach us is that God is waiting for us to show up. To wake up to the divine presence that is with us, around us, always.

And that this God looks to encounter us.

Just where we are.

Just as we are.

It’s not a matter of us getting from there to there. It’s not about us getting ourselves in the right place emotionally, spiritually or whatever before God can meet with us.

God longs to encounter us as we are, where we are.

Here.

Here is where God comes to meet us.

It’s the only place God can meet us.

Both Moses and Jacob are, in their own ways, hiding.

But God comes to where they are to find them.

He comes to meet them, even where they least expect to find him.

 

God doesn’t wait for them to have it all sorted out before he can deal with them. It’s clear from the name he gives himself.

I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

He was the God who been revealed in their stories, in their lives. And none of them were super saints. Oh, at their best they were fine, but at their worst they could be a right dysfunctional lot.

But God was the God who was faithful, often despite rather than the cause of them. He’s the God who was there as the story unfolded, even when they forgot about him, even when they didn’t notice him, even when they didn’t want him. Even when they hid from him.

This God didn’t wait for us to get it all right before he came looking for us in Jesus. It was whilst we were still far from him, he came looking for us in Jesus. It was whilst we were still sinners, Christ gave himself for us.

But we also learn in our encounters this morning that when God comes to meet us, it doesn’t answer all the questions. We just get enough for the next stage of the journey.

It’s pretty ambiguous whether Jacob has really that much more faith when he leaves Bethel than when he arrived there. His response is ‘if God does this, that and the other for me, then I’ll let him be my God.’

He’s a God who works with Moses and all the doubts he has. We only read a small part of the encounter. Moses offers many reasons why God should go encounter someone else.

He asks ‘who am I to do it’.

Then he tries ‘I don’t know what to say’

Then he tries ‘what if they won’t listen to me’

Then he tries ‘I’m not equipped, I don’t have the skills.’

Then when all else fails he tries ‘can you not send someone else?’

But God starts with Moses where he is. And when Moses asks for a name he says I am who I am, or I will be what I will be.

Moses you’re going to have to trust me with that. I’ll be always present, but never fully grasped. It’s a relationship. There will always be more to discover. There will always be mystery.

You’ll never know all you think you need to know.

And that’s ok. Cos just as I am here now,

I will be there then,

and there then,

and there then.

That is the nature of the relationship we are invited into through Jesus.

There may be times we experience him as a shepherd.

There may be times when we encounter him as our rock.

There may be times we encounter him as a father, or a friend.

He will be what he will be.

But always beginning from the same place.

Here.

Where we are.

Waiting to be encountered.

Waiting for us to wake up to his presence.

We’re not waiting for him to show up. He is always there.

 

We might feel like we’re in the wrong place. We might not feel prepared. We might not feel worthy. But all he’s asking is that we show up when he calls. That we say Here I am.

Here I am, Lord

Here you are, Lord

Here we are together.

But they were the ‘wrong places.’ The places where did they not expect to find him.

Just an ordinary pair of glasses.

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: Here (Part 1)

here

Reading: Genesis 3: 1-13

Sometimes people claim we live in a ‘godless society.’ Or they might say where they work or where they spend some other part of their time is a fairly ‘godless’ place.

It’s not a phrase which makes any sense. For a couple of reasons.

Firstly, we all have gods.

Everyone.

From the most fundamentalist believers to the most ardent of atheists. We have our Gods. We might not recognise them as such, we might not call them by that name, but it’s what they are.

They can be good or bad things.

Our God could be pleasure.

It could be our career.

It could be ourselves.

Everybody believes in something.

We all have stuff we live for.

We all have our gods.

None of us are godless.

So wherever we are can’t be godless. If anything there’ll be lots of gods hanging around.

You say, Andrew, that’s not what the phrase really means. Well, I know, but the other reason is more important.

God is everywhere. I’m not sure if it was philosophers or theologians who came up with the word but one of the words they used to describe God was omnipresent. But ‘everywhere’ is easier to say.

It’s a point made by one of the most loved Psalms (139)

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

If God’s everywhere, nowhere can be truly godless. We might not be aware of God. God might not be recognised. God might not be noticed. God might not be wanted or welcome.

None of that changes anything. God is always there.

And if God is everywhere, then God is here.

Which brings us to our first word.

Here.

For if we want to encounter God, then here is where we must begin.

It’s the first question God asks of us.

Where are you?

And if they are to encounter this God who comes seeking them there is only one honest answer…

Here.

Here I am.

People often miss the point of those early chapters in Genesis. The point is not that our world is a mess because of choices a couple of people made a long time ago, in a land far, far away.

It’s about the choices we make,

all the time,

here and now.

And about how God wants to relate to us here and now.

I don’t for a minute think we’re supposed to imagine God walking in a garden, rooting through the bushes asking ‘where are those pesky kids?’ God knows precisely where they are.

But God needs them to recognise it.

To see, to realise where they are.

Because that is where God comes to meet them.

Here.

It’s the word we use to denote our presence. In the school roll call it’s our response to our name.

Jackson?

Here!

Here might seem the obvious response to the question ‘where are you?’ But often we’re not really ‘here.’ We’re anywhere but here, in anytime but now. We dwell on the past. We worry about the future. We’re distracted by all the stuff that’s gone on this morning, or have to do later today.

But here is where God comes to meet us.

And can I suggest that’s a good thing?

We might wish we were somewhere else.

We maybe should be somewhere else.

But here is where I am, whether I like it or not.

In 2017;

in this political climate;

in this stage of my life;

with this set of circumstances.

With this set of problems;

With these faults;

With these things which bring joy

With these things that could cause me great embarrassment;

With these mistakes.

 I’m here.

Here is the only place I can begin.

Here.

Now.

Just as I am.

But I don’t need to be anywhere else to start.

I don’t have to get myself somewhere else.

For here is where God has come to meet me.

To meet you.

Just where I am.

Just where you are.

That’s not to say there can’t be places or moments where we will feel God closer to us than others. There are places where we can set aside time and be aware of God’s presence. One of the places we are invited to us do this is here at the table, where we remember that when we were still far from God, he came looking for us, asking ‘where are you’

But we are also invited to recognise that God is with us wherever we are. God has been there all along, even when were too distracted, groggy, sick or immature to notice.

As I draw to a close I want to share with you a very short prayer, which can, if we use it, help us to re-set, to become aware of God’s presence. At any point.

Here I am, Lord

Here you are, Lord

Here we are together.

It’s a simple prayer.

It takes less than 15 seconds. We can utter those words, even in a whisper, on the way to that meeting, as we sit with that person whom we long to help, on that journey, wherever we happen to be found.

Here I am, Lord

Here you are, Lord

Here we are together.

With those words we welcome God into whatever we are doing.

We ask him to awaken us to where we are, and to the presence of the God who is with us wherever we are.

The one from whose presence we cannot flee.

It reminds us that we don’t have to be anywhere else to meet with God.

Perhaps we wish we were somewhere else.

Perhaps we ought to be somewhere else.

But here is where we are.

And we don’t need to be anywhere else.

For here is where God has come to meet us.

Here is the place we begin

And begin again.

 

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: Introduction

In the first half of the year, we spent a lot of time on the theme of Knowing Christ. We considered the idea that we are created for loving, intimate relationship with God our creator, who has revealed himself most fully in his son Jesus.

In one sense I wrapped that up before I went on holiday. But I’m not totally leaving it behind. I want to build on that theme in a new series over the next number of months.

The focus is slightly different. I suppose I’m asking things like…

  • Who is this kind of spiritual life, or relationship with God for?
  • Is it just for some kind of super religious elite?
  • Or is it wider than that?
  • What does the spiritual life look like?
  • How do we grow in that relationship?
  • Does it just grow by accident or do we need to nurture it?
  • If we need to nurture it, how do we do that?

An expression I hear quite a lot is when people say they are spiritual, but not religious. I suppose they mean is that there is more to life than we realise, more than can be explained by our senses. Our world is mysterious. There is more to it than we realise. But equally they find ‘organised religion’ doesn’t really help answer the questions they have. Sometimes they sense it even gets in the way.

In fact for some people there is a tension between those two ideas – being spiritual or being religious. For some people church is the last place they would expect to encounter anything ‘spiritual.’

There are lots of reasons for that. Some good, some bad. It’s just how it is.

But it’s not just outside churches I encounter this. On Youtube I can find all sorts of videos along the lines of ‘why I hate religion, but love Jesus’ or ‘it’s about relationship not religion.’ Or when I do a google image search stuff like this comes up.

Christianity is not a religion.

Religion is humans trying to work their way to God.

Christianity is God coming to men and women through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

 Now I sympathise with some of what that’s trying to say. But I suspect it’s a product of the fact that the word religion has got such bad press.

I’m not sure that such a tension really needs to exist. For at their best, they’re both about the same thing. In the few weeks before I went on holiday I spoke about how the word re-lig-ion has the same root as ligament. The purpose of good religion is to bind us together – body, mind and spirit; to connect us to God and each other.

Yes, religion has been used for quite destructive ends, and been used to justify many terrible things. But at it’s best it draws us together with others, bring wholeness to us and connects us with the divine.

What we believe has its place, but far more important are questions like:

is this life-giving? I mean Jesus did say he came to bring us life.

Is it true,

noble,

right,

pure,

lovely,

admirable,

excellent,

praiseworthy?

Far more people have experiences that they would describe as ‘spiritual’ than we realise. It might be a sunset or the birth of a child. Equally they might encounter it in the darker moments of life where they wonder if they can make it, if they can go on. Then from somewhere they discover strength or courage they never knew they had, or help comes from an unexpected source. We say things like ‘it’s like it was meant to be.’

Maybe it was.

Spiritual experiences are great and to be celebrated. But they can’t sustain a meaningful relationship for any period of time. They are very unreliable. You can’t just flick a switch and they happen. There is no magic formula for them.

Most of life is not lived in the real highs or lows or intense experiences. It’d be exhausting if it were. So if we are to live life in relationship with God, it can’t be built around great experiences. It’s only sustainable if we can find it in the ordinary.

So, are there ways in which we can encounter God and nurture relationship with God in the everyday experience of life?

Over the next number of months I want to suggest we can.

The spiritual life shares more in common with other areas of life than we realise. We can develop habits and practises which help to nurture our spiritual life.

For example at the moment I can’t speak Romanian. But if I took some classes, gradually, word by word, phrase by phrase, I’d slowly begin to develop my Romanian. When I spoke to Christian and Aurica or Beny and Elisabeta I could insist we only used Romanian. I could spend time in Romania. Over time I might become fluent. Some of you have had to do that with English since you came to this country. It was something I was unable to do, but I could develop.

Or I have run a few half-marathons. When I started running I could barely manage a few hundred metres. But gradually over time, by following a program, slowly building up the miles, I could slowly build it up to the point where I was able to complete races. Again through small, simple steps I built up my capabilities.

Could the same true of the spiritual life?

Can I become more forgiving?

Can I become more thankful or humble?

Can I learn to accept God’s grace more freely?

Please don’t think I’m underplaying the importance of grace in the Christian life. This is not about things we do to get God on our side. God is already with us. God loves us completely, just as we are.

However all relationships are two way. God won’t force his way on his if we do not want it.

Over the course of this series I want to offer certain practices that can help us nurture the relationship with God. Things which can create space for the living water or the wind of the Spirit which Jesus spoke about to move in our lives.

That’s what these 12 words are about.

I recognise that in my job, at this season of my life, without some of the responsibilities that others have to deal with, I have space a lot of other people don’t. So this is not about heaping more do this, do that onto you in your already busy lives. If the only people who can set out on a spiritual journey needs lots of time, freedom and self-discipline, it’s not going to work for a lot of us.

No, this is stuff that’s simple, doable and can be built into what we are already doing. They can help us to encounter God in the midst of all life.

One final thing before I dive in, is that growth and progress is rarely straightforward. I spoke a few weeks ago about how growth often comes in spirals rather than straight lines.

We go through cycles of learning. We start from the position of thinking we know something. Everything seems lovely and wonderful.

Then something happens which tells you this might be more complicated than I thought. And things don’t get better quickly.

It can develop into a crisis. You might even look back to the day where you wondered ‘how could I ever have thought that?’

But hopefully over time you come to discover a new way of understanding. It may be that what you thought was wrong. But often, hopefully, you discover that there was some truth in it, but you had more to learn to understand it more fully.

When we grow in a healthy way we don’t just go round and round in circles. We take what we learned from the experience and it launches us forward onto a new cycle of learning.

The spiritual life works much the same way.

We might liken it to seasons.

We have the summer of life when we are aware of God’s presence and goodness and worship comes easy. But if you’ve been a follower of Jesus for any length of time you know it doesn’t stay that way. Summer gives way to autumn. You become aware of needs within yourself, needs of others, need for help. And the spiritual life will pass through the darkness of winter in that period of waiting for rescue, when you might find yourself shaking your fists at the heavens, when you find yourself asking why? But then winter gives way to spring and we begin to see signs of new life.

Of course, it sounds nice and neat, but just like normal seasons it’s not always predictable. You might get a hint of summer in the midst of winter, or unseasonably cold days in summer. But it does help to unpack a little of how we grow. So over the four seasons we’ll consider three words for each season…

 

Summer

Here – when we become aware of God’s presence

O – where we respond in worship

Thanks – where we appreciate God’s goodness to us

Autumn

Sorry – an awareness of our need for forgivness

Help –we discover weaknesses and appeal to God to strengthen us

Please – We see others in need, realise our own powerlessness to help, and turn to God

Winter

When – where we ask the great spiritual question ‘how long’

No – when we refuse to accept the world as it is.

Why? – where we will deal with lament and loss

Spring

Behold – we begin to see new signs of life

Yes – we begin to welcome the newness God’s brings

… – which is just about stillness. In the silence God prepares for us for what’s next.

The point of all this is that being a good Christian is not about trying to keep yourself in summer. Life doesn’t work like that. No-one should feel guilty if they find themselves spiritually in autumn or winter. It’s about whatever season we find ourselves in, God can meet us there.

Nor is it about getting through the stages quickly. Each season has lessons to bring and if we want the full life God has to offer us, we can live well and grow through each of them.

If you want to know where I am going with all this, my main source is this book – Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren.

I’m not following his scheme exactly (my seasons don’t even match his) but the broad scheme will be similar.