Getting in the way

It’s Holy Week.

A time, usually, of rush and hurry for those of us involved in leading Churches. This year, I have been well prepared. Sermons are written and services are planned. Just for the record, I am not sat with my feet up! There are appointments in the diary

What I really wanted to do this week was devote some of my time to prayer and the Bible. To focus in and reflect upon this incredible week. As I have done so, I have been amazed at what God has been saying to me through it.

The passage I looked at this morning is one I have preached from many times before and quoted many times before. John 13 vs. 31 – 38. It contains Jesus famous saying;

A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13 vs. 34 – 35)

I fully expected to focus on those verses, instead, I felt that curious nudge of God to read on. Simon Peter, full of bluff and bluster promising to lay down his life for Jesus and the stark words of Jesus;

Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!  (John 13 vs. 38)

I find it quite easy to relate to Simon Peter. He is straight in there, he is keen and enthusiastic holds nothing back.  He is all or nothing.   The downside is, that his ego often gets in the way of what Jesus is doing. I found myself wondering if, at times. my own ego gets in the way of what Jesus wants to do. Richard Rohr says;

The only problem is that our culture teaches that ego is the only game in town. We take it a little too seriously and take the private ego as if it is full reality. The nature of the ego is that it tries to fix, name, control and insure everything for itself (Richard Rohr – Everything Belongs page 62)

When Jesus washes his disciples feet, Peter wants to be “completely washed” (John 13 vs. 9) – I read this as “I take am more religious than….”. When he offers to lay down his life for Jesus, what Simon Peter is effectively saying is “I am more committed than……”.

Jesus warning is one we all need to hear. If you live out of your ego only, it is not long before you will fall and that fall can be devastating.

Jesus operates very differently to Peter in this situation. Instead of ego He offers His vulnerability and in that vulnerability we encounter the reality of His love. In His vulnerability we see the real Jesus. He lowers Himself as He kneels and washes His disciples feet. He shares the meal with the disciples who would betray, run away and deny Him. He gives love without demanding a return.

Our ego can blind us to love.  Vulnerability leads us towards love.

There are times when the ego has to go, we have to be truly vulnerable and allow so that the true us emerges. That is a scary thought. Of course, at one level, there are only a limited few I can really do that with, for obvious reasons.

It is, in prayer, I can be “safely vulnerable” because it is in that place I can find the full, wonderful and gracious love of God.

Are you prepared to let go of your ego, be vulnerable and find the love God gives?

 

Walking a dark path

Over these past few weeks, our family has been travelling down some pretty dark paths and, if I am brutally honest, I have found life to be a bit of a struggle.  My biggest frustration as a parent and grandparent is that I would do anything to protect my children and, in our current situation, I feel so powerless to help.

As a minister, I suppose I wear a kind of “mask”.  I have a “public persona”, the me I am expected to be and the me I want others to see.  The real me only emerges when I am in private and I am faced with the doubts and fears that lie deep within.

Of course, questions of faith emerge at times like this. I can appreciate the Psalmists Lament;

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

so far from the words of my groaning?

(Psalm 22)

 

Of course, there are many well-meaning Christians who will trot out well-worn Bible verses and seek to assure that “God will use this for good”.  Whilst, ultimately, I believe God will, this kind of comment produces in me an anger that just wants to punch their lights out – in love of course!

So, why do I feel like this?  When we focus on “the good that will come, sometime, eventually, in the future” we deny the pain of the present moment. 

To see somebody in pain can be an uncomfortable experience and produces disquiet in the person seeing the pain.  So, like Jobs comforters, we want the quick fix, the easy answer.  We want to rationalise the unexplainable whilst denying one inescapable truth 

The pain is real.

I read some words this morning, quoted by Richard Rhor, that really spoke to me at the present time;

Something in you dies when you bear the unbearable. And it is only in that dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees and to love as God loves.

(Ram Das)

In many respects the message of the cross doesn’t make sense to me.  A loving God allowing His sinless Son to bear the sins of the world.  However, it begins to make more sense when we look at it through the eyes of pain.  In Jesus, God does not deny the pain of humanity but stands alongside us in our hurt and our suffering.  That, for me, is part of the message of the cross.

So, in this current struggle, there is hope.  Not that “one day we will look on this and see all the good things” but, that we are not alone in our pain, God is there.  God doesn’t deny the reality of what we face and He doesn’t walk away from us.      

 

 

Having A Duvet Day

(Icon of the Transfiguration by Theophanes 15th Century)

 

I awoke yesterday morning with a splitting headache and feeling really groggy.  The past few days had been very busy and I was feeling quite jaded.  There was nothing else for it, I awarded myself a duvet day!

Just so you are clear, it was my day off, I was not skiving.  Also, for clarities sake, I did not lounge around wrapped in a duvet wearing my PJ’s for the day.  I did, however, take the opportunity to “veg out” and catch up on some TV programs I had recorded.  I drank lots of tea and enjoyed some treats in front of the telly!

Sometimes, we all need a bit of a duvet day.  A time when we rest both our mind and our body.  Do nothing.  I felt much better as a result.  I returned to work this morning and was able to tackle a large part of my to-do list.  Had I not had my duvet day yesterday, I doubt I would have been able to do it.

The Bible sets a pattern of work and rest, that is partly what Sabbath is about. When we have a Sabbath we cease from activity and rest so that we can worship God fully. Many of us work, in order to rest.  Or we rest, in order to work.

I began to think about this slightly differently this morning as I turned to my time with God.  The passage, if you would like to read it, was Luke 9 vs. 28 – 36.  The story of the Transfiguration when the splendour of God is seen by His disciples shining through Jesus.  Those disciples began to see Jesus differently.  It was verse 32 that caught my attention;

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 

(Luke 9 vs. 32 – NRSV)

I felt that God was speaking to me about this way in which I, so often, sleep walk through life.  I am so weighed down with all that I have to do, so focussed, that I can miss His splendour and glory shining through.  What if my rest was not so that I can work but, so that I can be fully awake?

What if your rest was not so that you can work but, so that you can be fully awake?

Think about it.  How often do you go through routines and patterns of life without even thinking about what you are doing?  I know I am guilty of that.  When I am not fully awake, am I missing the things God wants me to see, or the things God wants to say to me?

Why not ask God to help you rest so that you can be fully awake?  What do you see that is different now, to what you saw before?

 

 

 

 

Perform a U-Turn

 

I believe that one of the greatest inventions of all time is the Sat-Nav.  I tend to do a fair amount of driving and the Sat-Nav has proved invaluable in getting me from point A to point B in an efficient and quick manner.  I remember the good old days when you had to get the map out and plan your route to unfamiliar places well in advance.  With the Sat-Nav I jump into the car, program the post code and off we go.

I do, however, have a little grumble from time to time with my Sat-Nav.  Sometimes, I know the general route it’s the finding my specific destination that causes the trouble.  I program in my destination and then I drive the route I prefer wanting my Sat-Nav to guide me in the city or town of the address.  If I go one way, sometimes the Sat-Nav wants to take me another direction and the little voice chimes out;

“perform a u turn when possible”

My response to this voice is often to argue with it (I know it cannot hear me but, I still argue).  I know the general route, I have driven this before, I know the roads I like and the one’s I don’t.  Why not give me helpful advice when I need it?  Still the Sat-Nav keeps on;

“perform a u turn when possible”

I heard that same voice today as I spent some time in prayer and with the Bible.  As it is Ash Wednesday, the passage chosen was the traditional passage from Joel 2;

“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

(Joel 2 vs. 12)

If I was to paraphrase this verse, I would translate it as “perform a u turn”.  Instead of arguing this time, I realised I needed to listen to this instruction.

Let me explain why.

It dawned on me yesterday that I have been very distracted of late. There are lots of reasons I could trot out at this point but, they would just be poor excuses. 

The phrase that I have heard some people use is “I have a monkey mind”.  I could relate to that. 

I sit down for my quiet time and thoughts are popping into my head and instead of focussing on what I am doing, I am scanning the bookshelves for that volume I put somewhere safe because it would come in handy one day.  Within a couple of minutes, I am working on something else, checking emails and I am not paying any attention to what I started out doing. 

I have even found I was having a conversation, and find I am not concentrating on what somebody else is saying because my mind elsewhere.  Goodness only knows what I have agreed to do because, I haven’t got a clue.  My mind was on other things.

This morning, through the prophet Joel I heard God say;

Perform a u turn and seek me with an undivided heart.  Focus on what you should be doing not on the things you shouldn’t.

(Joel 2 vs. 12 – my paraphrase)

 

Perhaps there is something we can all learn from this.  Do you need to make a u turn?

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!