Specks, Planks, Smudges and Sneers

 

 

Judgments.  We all make them.  There are times in life we have to.  I need to judge which products I buy, which route I take and how I tackle a particular task.

There is another kind of judgement.  We all make them.  There are times in life when, I look at another and make a decision about them.  Our judgment can be based on many things clothes, accent even the location of where we see that person.  Sometimes, we cannot even define it, a subconscious decision.

We make our judgments based on previous experience, fear, self-preservation and assumptions.  Before we meet an individual, without even knowing we can “pre-judge” them.  Our judgments may prove to be right or wrong.

Jesus warned His hearers about the danger of judging others on what you think you know about them;

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”

(Matthew 7 vs. 1)

The judgement that, I think, Jesus talks about here is not the judgement that comes from wisdom.  Jesus does tell His disciples to be “as wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matthew 10 vs. 16).  I believe that the judgement Jesus speaks out against is the one that says “because you do… I am better than you”.  Or, the judgement that is willing to point out somebody’s faults and failings, whilst ignoring our own “Have you seen what …. is doing, I don’t do that sort of thing”.

I think we sometimes miss the humour of Jesus when He says;

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

(Matthew 7 vs. 3)

Eugene Peterson, in The Message, calls this “smudges and sneers”.  We see the chaos in another’s life, and pretend that there is no chaos in our own.

So, why is Jesus so concerned about not judging people.  Firstly, I think it has to do with the barriers that it creates.  When we judge somebody else we, instantly, erect a barrier which stops us reaching them and them reaching us.  We create an “other”.  In our world at the moment we see all kinds of examples of division.  As a human race, we need to bring barriers down in order to work together for the good of the whole of humanity.  There should be no “us and them”, there should only be “us”.

Secondly, I think Jesus challenges judgement because it creates a false impression of what God is looking for.  God is not interested in our “performance” or where we come on a “league table” of faith.  He is interested in our hearts being open and receptive to Him.

We do not know the chaos that there is in another persons’ life.  We must be willing to allow God to work through the chaos in our life.  One story I came across comes from the tradition of The Desert Fathers, it really spoke to me;

A brother at Scetis committed a fault.  A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it.  Then the priest sent someone to say to him, “Come for everyone is waiting for you.” So he got up and went.  He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him.  The others came out to meet him and said to him, “What is this, Father?”  The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

(quoted from “The Monastic Way” edited by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild)

 

 

 

 

A Heavy Sigh

As part of my daily routine I follow a set of prayer notes.  I looked at the passage this morning and saw that it was a, thankfully, short one.  I say thankfully because, I had a busy day planned and I was hoping to get done quickly!

God, however, had something else in mind

The passage concerned the Pharisees coming to question Jesus and demanding evidence, proof that He is who He said He was.  They wanted signs and miracles to back up Jesus authority.  If you want to take a look for yourself, you will find it in Mark 8 vs. 11 – 13.  There were some words in verse 12 that caught my attention;

He sighed deeply

(Mark 8 vs.12)

I found those words intensely moving.  We sometimes get this picture of Jesus that He was something almost “other worldly”, mystical, separate from the emotions and feelings that the rest of humanity has.  Yet, in three words, I could see the reality of Jesus.  Fully human and fully God.

Why did Jesus sigh deeply?

Was it the pressure and demands that others were making of Him?  Was it the Pharisees, who were supposed to be teachers and leaders of the people, just did not get it?  Was it their lack of faith?  Was it a sigh of sadness because, in rejecting Him, they were missing life in all its fullness?

Perhaps it was a mixture of all of the above.

Sadly, I think all too often, Jesus must sigh deeply over the state of His Church today.  When Christians use the Bible as a cudgel to hit others with.  When Christians point out the “speck in somebody’s eye rather than acknowledging the forest in their own”.  When Christians get bogged down in the small stuff of Church rather than sharing the love of Christ with the world.  I believe Jesus sighs over His Church.

Of course, the Church is made up of people, individuals.  I (you) have to acknowledge our own part in this.  There are attitudes, values and standards of mine (yours) that Jesus must sigh over.

But there was something else that I thought about.  Jesus is fully human and fully God so, not only does He sigh, He also rejoices.  I believe that is true today too.  There are times when I must do things, think things, say things, possibly even totally unaware when Jesus rejoices and celebrates “he has got it!  He has learnt something”

As I put my down my Bible, and turned towards my days work I found myself praying “Lord, help me today to bring more joy to your heart.  May my life give you cause for celebration”

What will your day be like?

Awestruck!

 

My reading this morning came from the book of Genesis chapter 1.  As I read this familiar passage, I was totally awestruck by the creativity of God all coming from the sound of His voice.  I was awestruck that this same God continues to speak into the world today.  I was awestruck that this same God, wants to speak into lives, into our hearts.

As I turned to my Bible notes the writer said “how will you respond to what you have just read?”  The result of this time of reflection found its way into some jottings in my journal. I wanted to share this because, I hope it will lead you into some thoughts and reflections of your own.

 

So, here we go……

O Lord,

Amazing God,

You who spoke

And

Brought all things into being

At the sound of your voice

Order was brought

Into the chaos

O Lord,
Amazing God
You who spoke
And
The word became flesh
At the sound of your voice
Hope was brought
Into the world

O Lord,
Amazing God
You who spoke
And
Bore our shame
At the sound of your voice
Forgiveness came
From a Cross

O Lord,
Amazing God
You who spoke
And
Rose to life
At the sound of your voice
Peace was brought
To the human heart
O Lord,
Amazing God
You who spoke
And
Give hope to all
At the sound of your voice
Freedom breaks out
Into the world

O Lord,
Amazing God
You who spoke
And
Wants to be heard
At the sound of your voice
May I respond
To you

So, let me ask you, how do you want to respond?

The “Red Rag To A Bull” Issue

 

It happened again to me this week. 

Somebody raised a “red rag to a bull” issue with me this week.

It is something I have struggled with and fought with myself over the years and I do not know if you would say I have lost or, I have won the battle.

The biggest challenge I face is try to live, what people have described, a balanced life.  I know the theory, work from a place of rest, take a Sabbath, balance demands of work, family and leisure time.  I have tried and tried again but, somehow, I have never managed to get it right (or so I am told).

The end result of this battle has often been a feeling of guilt because, I have got it wrong and a feeling that I have let others down by not being there for them.

When I worked in industry, it was fairly straightforward.  My work ended when I left the factory gates.  I knew what was expected of me.  I had targets to achieve.  I had starting and finishing hours, I knew when tea break and lunch break happened.  Whenever I was not at work, I was involved in family and leisure time.

Of course, ministry isn’t 9 – 5 Monday to Friday.  I have struggled with lines of where work begins and ends.  No targets but, expectations of people of myself and expectations that we believe (mistakenly) that God has placed on us

Life seemed simpler when I had a proper job!

 

Actually, it wasn’t quite like that.

Life was not simpler then.

I remove my rose tinted glasses

 

In truth, I took the worries concerns and pressures home with me.  I did not leave colleagues at the factory, I carried my concerns for them and prayed for them.  When I had a disagreement with the boss or, some project had gone wrong, I was kept awake at night worrying and carrying the burden of the day.

You see, I have always struggled to achieve what I am told is the work / life balance.

A little while back now, I made a revolutionary decision.  I gave up trying. 

I accepted that I cannot achieve what other, well meaning, people expect my work / life balance to look like.  I accepted that ministry and actually non ministry “normal life” neither begins nor ends.  I accepted that all of life is integrated.  There is no divide between secular and sacred.

I have a real fondness for some verses in Matthews gospel translated by Eugene Peterson;

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. 

Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 

(Matthew 11 vs. 28 – 30)

 

What I am trying to learn is, as Peterson brilliantly puts it, “the unforced rhythm of grace”.  I am trying to discern where God wants me to be.  I am trying to learn to be fully present to God and, in that way, I can live freely and lightly. 

In other words, stop trying and start living God’s way!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inadvertent Frogs!

 

 

I wonder if you have ever had the experience of reading something that made you say “ouch!”.  It happened to me just the other day.  I read a piece written by John Climacus that made me say “ouch!”;

When we draw water from a well, it can happen that we inadvertently also bring up a frog.  When we acquire virtues we can sometimes find ourselves involved in the vices which are imperceptibly interwoven with them.  What I mean is this.  Gluttony can be caught up with hospitality; lust with love; cunning with discernment; malice with prudence; duplicity, procrastination, meekness; refusal to learn with silence; conceit with joy; laziness with hope; hasty condemnation with love again; despondency and indolence with tranquility; sarcasm with chastity; familiarity with lowliness.  And behind all the virtues follows vain glory as a salve, or rather a poison for everything.

(John Climacus – The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 26)

 

Sorry it is a long quote but, I wanted to record it in full so that you can get the full impact of the words.  John Climacus (also known as John of the Ladder) was a Monk at Mount Sinai Monastery in 6th / 7th century.

As I read these ancient words, I had a real “ouch!” moment.  I found myself reflecting on my character, personality and my attitudes.  Sometimes, we need those “ouch” moments to cause us to stop, think and reflect on the question “are we as aware of ourselves as think we are”.  As Robbie Burns said;

O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as ithers see us! 

 

(Translation – O would some Power the gift give us

                         To see ourselves as others see us!)

 

I am not altogether sure I would want that particular gift!  When others look at me, what do they really see and think?  (please do not be tempted to comment!)

John Climacus words ring a loud warning bell. I may have gained some wisdom over the years but, can that come across as arrogance?  I may have gained some experience over the years but, can that make me a little cynical?  I found myself thinking of a verse in the book of Proverbs that says;

Wounds from a friend are better than kisses from an enemy!

(Proverbs 27 vs. 6 The Living Bible)

It’s true!  When God draws our attention to some of the inner things in our lives, it isn’t because He wants to punish us, it isn’t because He wants to see “change or else”.  God draws our attention to it because, He wants to free us to enable us to grow.

Can I encourage you to read the above quote again and ask yourself the question have I, inadvertently, pulled up a frog?

 

 

 

Hope for the Hope-less

Hope is the anchor of our souls. I know of no one who is not in need of hope – young or old, strong or weak, rich or poor.

(James E. Faust)

 

Okay, let me lay my cards on the table.  I have not been feeling too well lately.  One of the consequences is I have been feeling pretty hope-less.  That is to say, I have lacked hope.  I do not say this to elicit sympathy or for warm fuzzy comments.  I say it simply because, it is a fact.

I will also point out (for the sake of honesty) this; it is my own fault.  I cannot point the finger at anybody else, I have done it to myself. 

I have this very bad habit of filling all my moments of my days with unceasing activity.  I see what needs to be done and, I do it.  I see what doesn’t need to be done and I do that too.  The consequence of that is, I get “over tired”.  When I am over tired, I lose vision and perspective and so I work harder to achieve and on and on it goes.

This is nothing new for me.  As my wife pointed out “we have had the same discussion for the last 20 odd years!”  Every year I promise I will do better, I have not managed it yet!

Things have been so “out of kilter” for me recently that my quiet times and devotions have been rushed and have been done more out of habit than anything else. 

This morning was different. 

I had more time available to me (which I wasn’t expecting) so I got to be a bit more leisurely with the Bible and actually listen to what God was saying to me.  The passage came from Mark 2 when Jesus says;

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath

(Mark 2 vs. 27)

 It was as if God was reminding me of something that we have discussed more often than I care to remember.  Sabbath is not a luxury it is a necessity and it is there for me to stop so that life can be brought back into perspective.  I was feeling hope-less because I was Sabbath-less.  I then turned to a verse in Proverbs which says;

Hope deferred makes the heart sick,

But a longing fulfilled is a tree of life

(Proverbs 13 vs. 12)

 When we lose hope it is almost like toxins are released into our system.  We can become negative, critical, angry, cynical and discouraged.  We can even convince ourselves that God has abandoned us.

It is a lie

God never stops working!

What Sabbath can do is help us to change our vision.  Refocus.  It helps us to see what God is doing rather than what I think God should be doing. 

The Sabbath was made for you, not you for the Sabbath

 I feel a great deal better now!

 

 

 

Fresh Streams and Tree Stumps

 

I have just come back from the Fresh Streams Conference.  This is one of the highlights of my year.  I get a chance to meet up with friends and colleagues, great teaching and amazing worship.  I went with a real sense of expectation that God would speak to me at some point, in some way.

I came back feeling quite disturbed, unsettled, more questions than answers.

Now, before you stop reading, this is not a negative blog nor criticism.  Sometimes, I think, God can use that unsettling feeling to speak to us and, perhaps, feeling a little unsettled was something I needed at this moment in time.

One of the main speakers was somebody I have heard a couple of times before.  He is someone I respect enormously and I was really looking forward to his key note talks.  During his first talk I am sure I heard him say;

The question that God asks of us is, are you growing?

My immediate reaction was to disagree!

I think God does ask questions of us.  I believe He asks questions like “do you love me?”, “are you following me?” and “what have you done with my son and those I have entrusted to you?”  I had never considered “are you growing?” as the type of question that God would ask of me.

I filed the comment away, decided I must have either misheard or, the speaker mis-spoke.  He didn’t quite mean it to “come out that way” – let’s face it, those of us who speak, sometimes come out with things we didn’t quite mean.

However, this thought came tumbling back into my mind later in the week.

It was Thursday morning.  I returned to work.  I was tired.  I had an incredibly busy day and evening ahead.  As I headed toward my office, the road was blocked as a team of Tree Surgeons trimmed and brought under control the tree opposite the Church.

I must confess, I sat in the car for a little while and watched them and, as I watched, that unsettled feeling came again and I believe God was speaking to me.

I appreciate that the pruning, trimming and controlling of a tree is very important for the life and future health of the plant concerned.  As I watched the men performing their task, it struck me just how brutal their arboreal activity seems to the untrained eye.  It was then that God brought to mind a few verses from the book of Job;

At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.

(Job 14 vs. 7 – 9)

Sometimes, the most significant growth does not happen on the surface, it happens below the surface.  The part we cannot see. For me, these words speak of a real hope.  Even if all looks dead and finished on the surface, at the move of God’s spirit (scent of water) new life begins to happen.  What we need to be is receptive to it and prepared to engage with where God is calling us now;

Are you growing?

Jesus, famously, used the image of the vine and branches (read John 15) and said that unfruitful branches needed to be cut off in order to bear fruit.  How prepared, or willing, am I for God to do some pruning in my life?

The truth is, some things I would be quite happy for God to prune but, there are some things I want to hold onto, I want to keep, even if they are unhealthy.  However, if I keep them, they could affect the health and growth of the whole.

Are you growing?

I went to look at the tree once work was complete.  I found myself wondering if new life could possibly appear on it.  As I looked with my untrained eyes I thought the Tree Surgeons know exactly how and where to cut to not kill the tree but to help it grow again. 

There are times when I have been through some pretty severe pruning in my life but, I have to trust that God knows what He is doing and, in time, new life will appear.

Are you growing?

 

Overwhelmed!

Have you ever felt overwhelmed?

I was listening to an item on the radio the other day. People were talking about their “to do lists”. There are many reasons why people keep them. For some, it acts as a target tracker, things they want to achieve. For some, it acts as a handy reminder a list of things that they are likely to forget if they haven’t written it down. Some people love their “to do list” they feel as though they have achieved something when they tick off the competed items.

I am one of those people that have to have a “to do list”.  I do, however, have a bit of a love / hate relationship with mine. I need it because I have a forgettery where my memory used to be. I hate it because, when I look at the list of outstanding items, it can make me feel overwhelmed, the list seems ever growing and never shrinking.

That feeling of being overwhelmed can be horrible at times. It’s like drowning under a sea of demands that never seem to ease up. Let’s face it, we can all feel like it at times.

The passage I read in the Bible today was one of those that I found it easy to relate to. The disciples were overwhelmed.

At first, they face a hungry mob of 5000 men (plus women and children). Then, for good measure, Jesus clears off up a mountain to pray whilst they have to fight a storm on the Sea of Galilee on their own.

I found myself getting quite angry.  The disciples are engaged in the task Jesus has set them, a furious storm blows up on the Sea of Galilee.  It really hit me. This is totally unfair.

They are in the boat – exactly where Jesus told them to be

They are in unity – sailing and rowing this kind of boat was a team effort

They are obedient- doing what Jesus said when He told them to do it.

It just is not fair. Surely, God would have made their passage smooth. Surely, God would have made it an easy journey, it was His will after all.

Why is it that, sometimes, we are doing the right thing, the place, the right time and life goes wrong? It has certainly happened to me, doing what I believed God wanted and it’s all blown up in my face.

Why?

There are no easy answers, and I firmly believe that “Christian platitudes” can cause serious damage! Some, well meaning, Christians that trot out their “off pat” answers are a little like cigarette packets, they should come with a health warning attached.

As I read on in the passage, it seems that my worst fears were realised when The gospel writer, Mark says;

He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, (Mark 6 vs. 49)

Even that slight glimmer of hope, the arrival of Jesus, seems to be short lived as He goes to “pass them by”. Isn’t Jesus meant to be with us? Isn’t Jesus meant to care? Yet, he is walking past them.

As I spent time in the passage, I wondered if, maybe, I had got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Maybe, the phrase “pass them by” doesn’t mean quite what I thought it meant.  I did what all good ministers do when confronted with something they don’t understand – I turned to a commentary!

I am so pleased I did because, I found something I hadn’t realised before.

The commentary guided me back to a passage in the Old Testament where Moses asks to see the glory of God.  God tells him that Moses cannot see His face.  God will “pass by” Moses (Exodus 33 vs. 19).  The commentator suggested that is what was happening.  Jesus “passing by” was not about ignoring or not caring it is about Jesus revealing who He is to this precious bunch of disciples.

Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. (Mark 6 vs. 51)

Jesus never intended His disciples to fight on alone.  He was not going to abandon them.  He was going to ensure they came through their time of overwhelming having experienced something more of Him.

Perhaps you are overwhelmed at the moment and perhaps you may feel that Jesus is “passing by”.   Maybe, He is just wanting to show you something more of His glory.

 

 

 

Listen up!

 

Yesterday morning, long before anybody else arrived in Church, I let myself into the Church and spent a bit of time in thought and in prayer.  During this time, I picked up my copy of the rule of Benedict (as you do) the rules of the Benedictine monks.  It was the very first word of the first rule that lept off the page at me;

Listen

As the rule expands, he goes on to say;

Before you start anything new, listen.

(my translation)

I found myself reflecting on the story of the boy Samuel in the temple. He is settled down for bed and hears a voice calling him so, he rushes to Eli’s side.  After several time of this happening, the penny drops for Eli and he realises that it is God speaking and says to Samuel when you hear the voice again say;

“speak Lord for your servant is listening”

(1 Samuel 3 vs. 9)

It’s been commented upon many times that in our prayer lives we often change it to “listen Lord your servant is speaking”.  It really struck me how Benedict began his rule with such a profound instruction.  Listen.

I believe many of us struggle with hearing. 

In a physical sense, the gift of hearing, of being able to listen, is something that we don’t fully appreciate until our hearing starts to fail.  Being “a bit mutton” has been turned into a bit of a joke.  Many deaf people end up feeling isolated and lonely trapped in a world where they just cannot participate to the fullest extent.  Those of us who can hear, cannot begin to understand the frustration that many deaf people feel maybe it comes from taking our hearing for granted, in fact, we often choose not to hear.

There is a background noise of life, chatter, traffic and the music.  For many years we lived in a place called Wednesbury which is just off the M6, the background rumble of the traffic was a constant to the point where we no longer heard it.  I remember, one night, getting up to the bathroom.  It was really strange.  I felt quite spooked and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.  It was only after a while I realised, there was no traffic.  No background hum from the M6. I found out in the morning that there had been an accident and police had closed the motorway.

Listening.  Really listening, is one of the hardest things that we can learn to do but it is also one of the most precious gifts that we can give to another.

As Benedict goes on in his rules he talks about the need to not only listen with our ears, he talks about listening with our hearts.  I believe that is something that the Christian Church needs more desperately than ever these days. There is so much noise in this world anger, frustration and so many competing voices telling us what we need to do and so to actually hear the voice of God is incredibly difficult.  The prophet Isaiah says;

Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.

(Isaiah 55 vs. 2)

The problem is that when we hear all of the other competing voices, what is happening with us is it becomes a bit like “snacking” a little bit seems to do the trick and then, we are soon hungry again.  It only meets our inner hunger for a very short period of time.

A snack is quick, a feast takes time.

For our souls to be fully satisfied we need the feast that can only be found as learn to hear the voice of God.

I don’t know what you are thinking of for the New Year.  Whether the annual diet begins on 1st or 2nd of January and ends on the 3rd.  But I really want to encourage you to think about is cultivating a heart that really listens to God

 

Future Gazing

There was a headline in my newspaper today that caught my attention.  It read;

Blind mystic who foresaw 9/11 and Brexit predicts gloom for 2019

If I took this headline at face value (which I do not), 2019 looks as though there may be trouble ahead. I looked at the article in question and, to be honest, when I finished it I I was not inclined to take it seriously.  The “predictions” were so general, they could have fitted any number of situations and I couldn’t work out where Brexit and 9/11 fitted in.

There is a term I came across recently, future gazing.  Future gazing is about reading the signs of the times and predicting what the future may look like.  Future gazing is not just something confined to the realms of newspaper mystics but, some big corporations have future gazing departments to try and predicts trends so they can provide goods to meet changing markets.  Future gazing is something that many people do, particularly as we prepare ourselves to enter into a New Year.   

The article did make me stop and think about the coming year.  What is in store for me, our community and nation 2019?  In all honesty, I have not got a clue.  I know that some people find this kind of uncertainty unsettling and so, for them, future gazing can be a worrying experience.    

It made me think about a passage from Deuteronomy 30.  The people of Israel had spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness.  Now, they stood on the edge of the promised land.  Life was going to be different and, maybe, the people engaged in a bit of future gazing.  Making plans for what life could be like.  Moses takes the opportunity to remind the people that no matter what lay ahead of them, they would be faced with the choice to either walk in God’s ways or, away from God;

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 

 

(Deuteronomy 30 vs. 15 – 16)

The same choice lays before us too.  No matter what happens, in terms of the world’s bigger picture we choose whether we will walk in God’s ways or not. 

This morning, just after I read the piece in the paper, I read a quote from Henri Nouwen which said;

Remember you are held safe.  You are loved.  You are protected.  You are in communion with God and with those whom God has sent you.  What is of God will last.  It belongs to the eternal life.  Choose it, and it will be yours

(Henri Nouwen)