James’s Blog: An Opportunity to Reflect.

James’s Blog:  An Opportunity to Reflect.

When I was training to be a minister they made me do something that they called ‘theological reflection’. Each week I had to choose an experience I’d had in the last seven days and write a short reflection on it. I had to ponder over what had happened, how I’d responded, whether I’d do anything different and so on. Part of this process involved thinking through what the event and my responses revealed about God, the Bible, human nature and the like. I didn’t look forward to this enforced weekly introspection. It’s an odd way to live, having something major happen in your life and be thinking, “Oh good! I’ll have something to write about this week.” But, like many unpleasant disciplines, it achieved its purpose. After a couple of years, the habit became ingrained. Now I couldn’t stop theologically reflecting on stuff even if I wanted to.

After a few years of living in Australia, I returned briefly to the UK for a winter pilgrimage of sorts. I did a whistle-stop tour of most of the places that I had lived, or had been significant in some way, and took the time to stop, listen and reflect. At each location I asked myself a question: “What did I learn about God while I was here, and how did I experience Him during this stage of my life?” It was an excellent use of a plane ticket.

I’m telling you this because I am an advocate for reflection, in whatever form it takes. Reflect on your day-to-day life; reflect on significant, epoch-shaking moments; reflect on how you live and what it says about your faith; reflect, and make a habit of reflecting. ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, and all that jazz.

And a final word to a few of you – you will know who you are. After 27 years, the Canowindra campus of Cornerstone is closing down. On the 18th November the community there is setting apart some time to share stories, reflect and say goodbye. If you had a significant experience at Canowindra, and if you’re able to go, then take advantage of the opportunity. It can be hard to grab time for pilgrimage and reflection, but it’s good for you.

James’s Blog: My Family and Other Disorders.

James’s Blog:  My Family and Other Disorders.

In this past week our son Parker has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, except it’s not called Asperger’s any more. It’s called Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), except it won’t be called that for long. They’re changing it to Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) because, I assume, that Conditions are less offensive than Disorders. This diagnosis is not bad news for us. We’d assumed that he was autistic for a while now, and had been treating him appropriately. I imagine we’re not alone in being parents who were very relieved to hear that he has ASD, rather than the alternative (“We’re sorry Mr & Mrs Webb. He’s not autistic, he’s just really obnoxious.”).

It’s business as usual for the Webb family really, except that now we have access to various resources and courses that will help us be better parents for him and for his siblings, who struggle more than we do with managing their frustration at his seemingly irrational way of approaching life.

The reality is that no children are easy to raise, and each one should be treated uniquely anyway. In that regard, Parker is just like the rest of them. As difficult as it can be, I enjoy the variety I find in my own house – most of the time, anyway. Our home is a glorious circus; I alternate between being paralysed by laughter and grinding my teeth down to their stumps. I think that family life, like being part of any community, is one of God’s ways of giving us an insight into what it’s like for Him. Would Adam and Eve have been in such a rush to become like God if they had really known that it was less about exercising unlimited power and more about repeatedly having to tidy up after other people who acted like you didn’t exist?

Raising a child with ASD is a challenge, and it brings into the light all those failings that your other children didn’t manage to expose, but I think about the patient, generous way that God has raised me, and it helps.

James’s Blog: The Big Bad Wolf.

James’s Blog:  The Big Bad Wolf.

Of all the temptations that men face, the temptation of power is the one that scrubs up the best. No-one can deny the lure of sex and money, but it’s a lot harder to make your interest in those look noble. But power? Well, who doesn’t want to change the world for the better? Who doesn’t want to use their influence for good, to improve the lot of the downtrodden common man? Who doesn’t secretly believe that although power corrupts, it won’t corrupt me?

I don’t know if it was what Tolkien intended, but his One Ring is a fine metaphor of what power can do to us. No matter how well-intentioned, how noble the goal, taking hold of the One Ring is to invite corruption. Handling power wisely requires a certain strength of character. I’ve already quoted Martyn Lloyd-Jones in a previous blog, but his insightful comment bears repeating: “The worst thing that can happen to a man is for him to succeed before he is ready.”

Power gives you influence over other bearers of God’s image. This is a delicate and weighty responsibility. If you wield power then your feet should permanently be bare, for you are always on holy ground. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not proud, it is not self-seeking. Love always protects.

Why do you think that the meek will be the ones to inherit the earth? Who else would God trust with it?

James’s Blog: Redemption Walks Softly and Carries a Big Stick.

James’s Blog:  Redemption Walks Softly and Carries a Big Stick.

There is a big man waiting at the gate. He is carrying a huge wooden club. It has a nail in it. His name is Redemption. Do you let him in?

Blood sacrifice and murdered prophets in the Old Testament; Jesus and a persecuted church in the New. Redemption is a glorious word,a magnificent thing, but it leaves a scar. There is no redemption without a big club with a nail in it. Why would God do such a thing? Because redemption involves a tearing and a rending; it involves having the umbilical cord that ties us to this broken world surgically severed. Why would it not hurt? If you expect pain-free redemption then you haven’t understood what you are being redeemed from.

Imagine this: A woman finds out that her husband is a gambling addict, and has spent the last twelve months frittering away the children’s inheritance. True, she has not been a perfect wife, but she knows that she has not been a bad wife. She did not drive her husband to this; he chose the path of the spoiled brat. She is a woman more sinned against than sinning. So what does she do? She must carry his sin, and its consequences. She must explore the burden of forgiveness and all the ugly feelings that make it real.

But she has her own dark side. She struggles with the urge to keep her husband’s failure a secret. She is afraid of the shame. For so long all she’s wanted is the perfect family, the kind of family that arouses jealousy in the hearts of struggling parents and unhappy spouses alike. And for a while she had it. Why not? She worked hard for it. She deserves it. But if her husband’s actions come out then she loses it all. So what does she do? In the midst of this hurt and pain and wrong she is forced to come face-to-face with something that she didn’t realise was there. Her own pride.

It’s not fair! She is the wounded party, the victim, the wronged one, so why won’t God leave her alone? But the Holy Spirit, who watched her build her house on the sand, now watches – through the same tear-stained eyes – to see what she will do next. Not only does she have to deal with the fallout from her husband’s actions, her own sin has been exposed. It’s not the main event, sure, but it’s out there now. Listen! Can you hear Redemption at the gate, dragging his club behind him? This is her chance to not only redeem her husband and their relationship, but it’s also her chance to redeem herself. It’s her chance to walk away from the unstable house that she has built and wander in the desert for a while, trusting in nothing but the uncertain and terrifying love of God. Now Redemption is knocking. Does she let him in?

No-one ever said that redemption was fair, but it is most definitely good.

James’s Blog: Death by Watching.

James’s Blog:  Death by Watching.

Above the waist Philip oozed calm confidence, but underneath the desk his foot tapped like a woodpecker. Opposite him, the young executive leaned back in his swivel chair, Philip’s CV in one hand and a twirling pen in the other.

“I see that you’ve got plenty of experience in television, Mr Hendrickson.”

“Yes,” said Philip.

Pause.

Say something else, you idiot!

“Yes,” Philip repeated. “Plenty of experience.”

Well, that was fantastic.

“It’s good,” the executive continued, “that you know what it takes to provide high quality amusement.  That’s what we need.”

“’Amusement’?” said Philip.

“Sorry?” said the executive.

“You said ‘amusement’? I thought this was more of a…an educational type of channel.”

The executive laughed. “Entertainment is education, Mr Hendrickson.”

“Of course,” said Philip, blushing. Entertainment is education? What did that even mean?

“I have to say,” said the executive, ignoring Philip’s embarrassment, “that I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen today. I think you’ll fit in well at Big Jesus TV. Very well.”

Philip’s nervous foot slowed to a stop.

“You’re offering me the job?”

“Well,” the executive placed the CV on his desk and threw Philip a winning smile, “let’s just say that you can expect an encouraging phone call later today.”

“Great!” Philip really meant it.

“Do you have any questions?” the executive leaned forward, elbows on the desk and hands clasped together.

“Actually, I do. You want me to work on this program, Super Amazing Mission Stories, about people telling others about Jesus, right?”

“Yes.” The executive rested his head on his intertwined fingers and grinned.

“Well, I was wondering, where do the stories come from?”

The executive lifted himself from the desk, leaned back in his chair again and gestured vaguely.

“Here and there. Books. The Internet. We get them from all over the place really. Most of them need, you know, tweaking a bit.”

“Tweaking?” said Philip.

“Yeah, to make them more…interesting. More exciting.” The executive tapped the side of his nose knowingly. “So that God gets more glory, of course.”

Philip waited.

“I don’t understand. Are you saying that you make bits up?” he said, eventually.

“Bingo,” said the executive, his finger swooping to point at Philip as though he were picking him out of a crowd.

“Is that…is that OK?” said Philip.

The executive shrugged. “Jesus made stories up all the time. It’s basically the same thing.”

“Oh,” said Philip. He’d never thought about it like that before.

“It’s our goal, to beam exciting and inspirational stories to the millions who subscribe to our service. But not too inspirational, hey?” said the executive, with a conspiratorial wink.

“But isn’t that the point? To inspire others to share their faith?”

“Philip,” said the executive, shaking his head, “can I call you Philip?”

“Please do.”

“Philip, think about it. If people are out there,” the executive said, waving his hand at the wall, “sharing their faith, what aren’t they doing?”

“Ummmm,” said Philip, “watching TV?”

“Exactly! We don’t provide Big Jesus TV in order to encourage people to not watch Big Jesus TV. Can you imagine that? What would our advertisers say?”

The executive burst out laughing, as though he’d just heard the punchline to an exceptionally good joke.

“So you want people to be watching your channel rather than actually doing stuff for God?” said Philip.

“Watching our channel is doing stuff for God. When you’re watching Big Jesus TV you’re being edified and built up. You can’t be out shoplifting or committing adultery while you’re watching us, can you?”

“No, I suppose not,” said Philip. He thought he was beginning to understand. “I guess that if people are going to be consumers, they should at least be consuming something worthwhile.”

“I knew you’d fit in here!” The executive slammed his fist on the desk. “That’s the Big Jesus mindset to a tee. Though I don’t like to call people ‘consumers’. It’s a bit demeaning. I prefer the term ‘addicts’.”

“’Addicts’?”

“Yes. Consumers are wishy-washy and will head off as soon as they get the slightest sniff of a better bargain. Addicts are dependable. They’ll never leave you in the lurch. Being addicted to God is good, right?”

“And being addicted to Big Jesus TV?” said Philip.

“For most people, it’s the same thing,” said the executive. “Trust me.”

James’s Blog: Acts 2:32-37 for the Modern Pulpit.

James’s Blog:  Acts 2:32-37 for the Modern Pulpit.

32 “…God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand 35 until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’ 36 Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

37 When the people heard this, a few said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, thank you. I enjoyed that.”

And a few said, “Oh, I love Psalm 110. Let me tell you what I like about it.”

And a few said, “I think I’ve heard that sermon before.”

And a few said, “That was too simple. I wish you’d go a bit deeper.”

And a few said, “It wasn’t as good as last week’s sermon.”

And a few said, “It was too short.”

And a few said, “No, it was too long.”

And a few said,”That was just what my friend needed to hear.”

And a few were cut to the heart and thought, “Brothers, what shall we do?” but they didn’t say it out loud, or to anybody else, and by the time they were sitting down to their Sunday lunch they were already thinking about what they were going to do that afternoon and didn’t give Peter’s words another thought.

James’s Blog: How I Put Myself Outside the Church.

James’s Blog:  How I Put Myself Outside the Church.

One of the most unChristian aspects of my character is that I don’t like to eat with others. If it’s lunchtime, and the house is empty, I enjoy the thrill of choosing whatever food I want, taking however long I want to prepare it, and then sitting and enjoying it in the silence of a good book, or the rumblings of an even better film. I’m going to level with you; offer me the choice between a fantastic Indian meal with good friends, or a lonely peanut butter sandwich in front of the television, and it’s by no means a foregone conclusion.

Those of you who felt a sympathetic shiver of approval as they read that last paragraph may be a little disconcerted to hear me describe such a thing as ‘unChristian’. “The problem with you, James,” you might say, “is that I can’t tell when you’re joking.” Well, you know what? Neither can I.

I’m afraid that it’s the Bible that’s done it. Its pages are littered, right there in black ink, with words that tell me that great things happen when people gather together to eat.

We have no record of the amazing things that Jesus reflected on when he sat down to eat cheese and crackers by himself, but so very many stories of what happened when he sat down to eat with others. Have you ever noticed how many of Jesus’ parables, teachings and miracles occurred while he was at a meal table? It’s surprising. Even the risen Jesus couldn’t help himself. Whether it’s the fish barbecue on the beach, or the bread broken with two weary travellers on the road to Emmaus, Jesus makes himself known over food.

In Acts 2, Luke writes that one of the defining characteristics of the infant Church was that “[t]hey broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…” When Paul is writing to Corinth, instructing them on how to punish an unrepentant man who had brought public shame on the church, he says the worst thing that he can think of: “With such a man do not even eat.”

How interesting it is. We live in a world obsessed with food, yet all we ever talk about is what we should eat, when we should eat and how much we should eat. We never talk about the fact that God’s presence when two or three are gathered together in His name refers not just to prayer meetings, but to fish and chips too.

James’s Blog: The Sermon as Art.

James’s Blog:  The Sermon as Art.

Over the years, the line between writing a story and preparing a sermon has become blurred. These days, I tend to take the same approach with both, which means that I spend longer editing a sermon than writing it in the first place. I revisit it frequently, toying with the order of paragraphs, or searching for exactly the right image or turn of phrase.

It’s not about ‘trying to be clever’.  The sermon – like every effort to communicate – is actually a work of art, and needs to be treated as such.

Art can be a spiritual experience for people. A poem, painting, story, film or sculpture has the power to give people a taste of what lies beyond themselves. This is one of the ways in which God has weaved revelation into the fabric of what it means to be human. The sermon is unique among art in that the explicit contract between artist and audience is that God is front and centre. Some people turn hostile if they suspect that you’re trying to sneak God into areas where He’s forbidden, but with the sermon you’re allowed to be blunt.

Because of this, I find myself squirming in the pew if I suspect that I’m listening to a preacher who takes more care over constructing e-mails than he does over sermons.

“It’s about God. It’s got nothing to do with me” is an excuse used by sometimes well-meaning, sometimes lazy preachers who think that God is a KitchenAid mixer – you just throw in the ingredients, and leave Him to it. This approach denies one of the fundamental concepts of the Bible, namely that God, as an act of love, freely delegates to us responsibility for His reputation and message.

It’s got nothing to do with human effort or creative manipulation, rather it recognises that art and communication have divinely-ordained rules. Don’t tell me that Jesus, who painted pictures of plank-eyed people, camels squeezing through needles, and angry vineyard workers didn’t take how he communicated at least as seriously as what he communicated.

I’m not saying that every preacher needs to be a poet, or that clever structure is an adequate substitute for a vibrant relationship with God. What I am saying is that every preacher needs to realise that things like language and format actually matter. A preacher doesn’t need to succeed in creating art, but a preacher needs to at least try.

James’s Blog: Who Knows What Failure Looks Like?

James’s Blog:  Who Knows What Failure Looks Like?

One of the things about my life thus far is that it’s so blatantly intertwined with God that it’s impossible for me to answer a simple question like ‘What do you do for a living?’ without getting all spiritual if I so choose.  However, when I try to explain the labyrinthian nonsense of the past twenty years I get a bit self-conscious.  When I step outside myself and listen to what’s coming out of my mouth, I worry that I just come across as an indecisive loser, saying “I did this for a while, but that didn’t quite work out, so I went and did this…” ad infinitum.  By now, it would have been nice to have found something that was a) sustainable and b) that I was actually good at.

The issue is that, precisely because it all involves God, I get a bit worried about how it reflects on Him.  I’m not confident that I sound like a particularly good advert for a life committed to following Jesus.  “Make God the centre of your life,” I seem to be saying, “and you too can know the joy and freedom of repeated painful failure!”  So, the temptation is to be not quite honest about the path I’ve walked, but only because I want to make God look good.  Nothing wrong with that, right?  Well, actually, it’s all a bit ridiculous.  It makes me think of a lyric from the Blindside song Silver Speak – “I’m an ant trying to protect my dinosaur friend.”

There were once three men who were very concerned about making sure that God got a good rap.  They had a friend who was going through a hard time, and was not shy about complaining.  “Stop blaming God for your problems!” the three men said.  “Who are you to drag His name down to your level.  Pull yourself together!”  They were angry with their friend, because he was making God look bad.  In the end, God said to them, “You’re angry on my behalf?  Well, I’m angry with you because you have not spoken of me what is right, like my servant Job has.”

I have to keep reminding myself, you see, that the journey I’ve been on has been because of God.  I’m not someone who has tried a variety of career paths and not stuck at anything.  I’m not even someone who “…just hasn’t found his calling yet”.  I’m someone who has done what I believe God has asked me to do.  The difficulty is that, in the Kingdom of God, success looks a lot like failure, and failure looks a lot like success.  A sick church is unable to distinguish between the two, and chases success, unaware that all the time it’s just failure in a pretty wig.  In the end, all God asks for is faithfulness.  It’s my job to live honestly, and not worry about how that makes God look.

James’s Blog: Soul Jar.

James’s Blog:  Soul Jar.

The soul is like a jar.  It’s probably made of clay.  God seems to have a thing for clay.

Sometimes you go to someone’s soul jar and it’s empty.  You look at the person, and you see the bitterness etched on his face and you roll your eyes.  Words spring to mind: small-minded, tiny-hearted, empty soul.  No wonder, you think, that this soul jar is empty.  He is mean, wicked, horrible and anything poured into that jar would turn into vinegar the moment that it splashed against the sides.

But it doesn’t work like that.  The jar is not empty because of bitterness, but rather there is bitterness because the jar is empty.

Let me explain.

I watch a child dancing with breathless joy in the morning, while the world around me shouts “Fire and Fury!” and I think, She doesn’t understand and that’s why she dances.  But then God taps me on the shoulder and says, “No, James, she does understand, and that’s why she dances.  You may have lost your way for a moment.”

The jar starts full, but a swift kick here and a rough push there and a crack will show, and if we don’t attend to it then the soul starts to leak out.  If we don’t watch those chips and fractures then we’ll dry out.  It might take years, but it’ll happen.

“And it’s not just your jar, James,” says God.  “You know what Fred Craddock says the rule for all big families is, don’t you?”

“Yes, God,” I reply.  “The older ones help the younger ones.”

“Good.  Now fix your jar, and I can always top it up for you.  And when you see someone else in danger of leaking out all over the place, you know what to do, don’t you?”

“Yes, God,” I say.  “The older ones help the younger ones.”

How’s your jar?

How about the jars to your left and right?

Don’t just watch the treasure leak out.

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