James’s Blog: Happy Black Friday!

James’s Blog:  Happy Black Friday!

“Dad,” said the child, “why is it called ‘Black Friday’?”

Dad didn’t even look up from his computer.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, why is today called ‘Black Friday’?”

“I don’t know,” said Dad.  “I suppose I could Google it.”

“It’s just that, well, ‘Black Friday’ makes it sound like a scary or sad or bad thing,” said the child.

“Hmmmm…” said Dad, clicking on yet another banner that screamed BLACK FRIDAY SALE!!!!

“And it’s not, is it, Dad?”

“No,” said Dad, “it most certainly isn’t scary or sad or bad.  It’s fantastic.”

“Can we call it something else then, Dad?  Something better?”

Dad stopped his browsing for a moment to scratch his chin.

“What, you mean something like ‘Not Bad Friday’?”

“Something like that, but better,” said the child.

Suddenly inspiration struck.

“Hey!  How about ‘Good Friday’, Dad?  Could we call it ‘Good Friday’?”

Dad thought for a second.  He couldn’t think of a reason why not.

“Yes,OK.  That seems like a much better name,” he said, clicking on the button labelled ‘BUY IT NOW’.  “It certainly is a Good Friday!  I’ve just got a great price on this camera!”

And that is how the tradition of Good Friday began.

Meanwhile, on an insignificant hill somewhere, a man died alone and in agony and no-one cared.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 2 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 2 of 4

Richard Wurmbrand.

In the early days of my faith I read Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned during the rule of Communism. The book left an impression on me, and in those early days, if I wasn’t in a Christian bookshop browsing through the Adrian Plass books then I would have been in a Christian bookshop browsing through the Richard Wurmbrand books. His biographical account, In God’s Underground, is absolutely fantastic. As Brian Clough might have said, “I wouldn’t say that it’s my favourite Christian autobiography, but it’s in the top one.”

One book that I read was Alone with God, which is a collection of his sermons. What makes them unusual is that they are sermons that Wurmbrand preached while he was in solitary confinement. As part of a routine to keep his sanity, he would preach a sermon in his cell every day, despite the fact that no-one was there to hear it. He says that he reduced their main points to rhyming couplets, and by doing so he was able to memorise the bulk of them. When he was released, one of the things that he did was write them down, and he claimed that he managed to recall 348 of the 350 that he had preached.

I find that feat of memory amazing enough, but when you consider that many of the sermons include extensive quotes from the Bible, Shakespeare and other sources, it becomes truly incredible. I can’t help but think that the published articles were a lot more polished than the original sermons. Regardless, Alone with God was a very significant book for me when I was a younger Christian.

Many years later, while I was in Australia, I read a copy of the first collection of sermons that he wrote, the functionally-titled Sermons in Solitary Confinement. I’d found Alone with God to be insightful, powerful and influential. Sermons in Solitary Confinement. Blew. My. Mind. The sermons in this collection were raw and uncompromising in a way I’d never encountered before – these were the ones that read like sermons conceived in a oppressive hole deep in the Romanian earth. There is something incredibly unnerving about having a man bleed all over you, but you can’t doubt for a second the strength and meaningfulness of his convictions. These sermons came from a dark place, but they blazed in a way that deeply challenged and comforted me, despite the distance of both years and geography.

One thing that had a large influence on both my writing and my personal walk was the book’s introduction. Wurmbrand was obviously aware of the potential controversy of some of what he was writing so he warns the reader that he will find some disturbing and uncertain things within. This is not a place to find solid, consistent theology and doctrine, he warns, rather these are the outpourings of a soul in agony. But then he writes the following about those days: “I did not live on dogma then. Nobody can. The soul feeds on Christ, not on teachings about him.” Wurmbrand survived his ordeal not because he knew a lot of theology, but because he knew Christ. Do you understand the difference? In that one line he put into words the yearning of my soul since the first day that I had bowed my head before my new master.

If there is one goal in my writings, it is this. I do not want people to learn about Christ through what I write. I want them to encounter Christ. There is a crucial and important difference, and I am thankful to Richard Wurmbrand for his writings over the years, in which he demonstrated that distinction. It has helped to make my faith real, rather than hypothetical.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 1 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 1 of 4

Adrian Plass.

I hadn’t been a Christian long before I fell in with bad company. And by that I mean that I started reading a lot of Adrian Plass. I read pretty much anything of his that I could get my hands on. I was a Plass junkie. I still consider The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 & ¾ to be one of the finest and most meaningful pieces of Christian humour ever written, while I still have fond memories of making my way through books like Cabbages for the King, View From a Bouncy Castle, Clearing Away the Rubbish and so on. When I was newly minted, starting to find my way and trying to avoid traps for young players, Plass’s insights were invaluable. He is quite excellent at coming alongside his readers and offering meaningful encouragement to those who are struggling.

However, as I aged, the path that God had led me on meant that I often found myself up to my elbows in Other People’s Problems, and – as some of you will know – that often has the amusing side-effect of bringing to the surface All Your Own Problems. I wanted to grow; to change. I didn’t want to struggle through my faith the rest of my life thinking, “Is this really as good as it gets?” I needed solutions rather than sympathy, and as a result I seemed to find myself no longer in the audience that Adrian Plass was writing for.

Despite this, his impact on me in my needy youth was such that I am always interested when I hear that he has written a new book, and will probably automatically buy anything that has the The Sacred Diary name attached to it. Furthermore, there is a very specific piece of his that still influences my attempts at writing today.

As a teenager, I once got the opportunity to hear The Great Man Himself speak. I knew that he was available to sign books, so I bought what was probably the only Adrian Plass volume that I hadn’t read at that time – a collection of short stories titled The Final Boundary. The actual encounter with The Great Man Himself was embarrassing, due to me briefly forgetting my own name, but I still have the faded paperback with ‘To James, God Bless, Adrian Plass’ written in the front.

What I like about The Final Boundary is that most of the stories avoid the thinly-veiled morality tale approach of a lot of Christian fiction. Plass is just happy to just dump a story in your lap and leave you to get on with it. I imagine that Why it Was All Right to Kill Uncle Reginald would have upset a few people in its time. Marl Pit still moves me. The Second Pint is perhaps the closest in style to one of Jesus’s own parables, and by that I mean that it should leave the reader with chills running down his spine. Maybe it was this book of stories that first planted the seed that would one day blossom into The Listening Book, but even if it wasn’t, I know that within is a tale that first opened my eyes to the possibilities of storytelling. It’s a story called Bethel, about a snail who is being hunted by a sparrow, a fat child and a French chef. Without giving anything away, I will tell you that it’s surreal, bordering on the absurd at times, and makes few concessions to the reader. After twenty years, I still can’t say for certainty what message Plass was trying to communicate, and that excites me. Something different reveals itself each time I read, though from the very first time I knew that I was reading something special. It is this story that first allowed me to see that obscurity has value; that you can write something and trust God with its message. In that way, Bethel has influenced me; it taught me to write without fear.

James’s Blog: Peter & Paul

James’s Blog:  Peter & Paul

I know a man called Paul. Some people might consider him eccentric, but I think it is much more accurate to understand him as being a perpetual whirlwind of creativity and kindness.

He once did something very silly, which was to metaphorically immerse himself (and his family) in the Gospel of Mark for a period of time. It was a silly thing to do because that’s the kind of opportunity God might take to shift some heavy furniture in your life and, to be honest, who needs that kind of hassle?

Anyway, I imagine that he experienced all kinds of amazing revelations during this time, and he decided to share one of them with me. At least, I assume it occurred to him during this time. It might not have. It’s possible he could have known it for twenty years and then randomly decided to drop it on me one day. As I said, he’s a whirlwind of creativity and kindness.

In Mark 14, a woman anoints Jesus at Bethany. This fantastic little story appears in all four gospels, with particular nuances in each account. In Mark and Matthew Jesus uses a strange little phrase that, I must admit, I’d never really understood:  “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

I found it an odd comment. I suppose my confusion may have come from years of a particular type of Evangelical brainwas…I mean, teaching, where ‘preaching the gospel’ hadn’t been done properly unless you had quoted a large chunk of Romans. Telling a story about some woman spilling a jar of oil over Jesus’s head like a clumsy waitress didn’t quite seem to cut the mustard. But Paul pointed out to me that, right here, Jesus links the telling of stories with ‘preaching the gospel’. So, he said, perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus’s expectation was that the main way that his disciples would share the gospel when he was gone was by telling stories.

Is Paul right? Well, I know another man. This one’s called Pete. He’s got the soul of a poet, and it’s trapped in the body of a bouncer. Not really trapped, I suppose. It’s more of a symbiotic relationship. Some people might consider him intimidating, but I think it is much more accurate…actually, OK, he can seem quite intimidating when you first meet him. But he’s not really. Not when you get to know him; him and his gentle poet’s soul.

He does silly things too, and as a result he’s probably changed more lives for the better than he’ll ever know. I heard that he once pointed out that when we want to evangelise we tend to mine Paul’s letters for nuggets of theological truth, and forget that those same letters were actually written to people who were already Christians. If you want to share the gospel with non-Christians, he says, it’s better to spend a bit of time looking at how it was done in the Gospels and Acts.

So if you look, what do you find? You find stories. Jesus tells parables; carefully encasing the whole Kingdom of God in each self-contained scrap of micro-fiction. That’s a neat trick. In Acts, most of the recorded evangelistic speeches are just stories. Sometimes Paul shares his own story, but other times he, Peter and Stephen do nothing more than repeat people’s own stories back to them, but each time adding a postscript: “Now let me tell you where Jesus fits into your story…” Indeed, it seems that when Jesus was gone, the disciples preached the gospel by telling stories.

I am grateful for the things that these two men have shared with me. I am much more grateful for the two men themselves.

So, take note, men and women of faith! Do not neglect your story! Somewhere along the journey we may have lost our way, and belittled our stories. Do not do such a thing! Your story has been entrusted to you, and you alone, for the purpose of bringing the gospel of Jesus into the lives of family, friends, neighbours and curious strangers. Do not dare to be ashamed of it. Own it, and proclaim it, for when you do you are preaching the gospel.

James’s Blog: In Which an Atheist Shows a Perfect Understanding of What it Means to Follow Jesus.

James’s Blog:  In Which an Atheist Shows a Perfect Understanding of What it Means to Follow Jesus.

“They walked on in silence. A shower of hail bounced off Granny’s pointy hat and Oats’s wide brim.

Then Granny said, ‘It’s no good you trying to make me believe in Om, though.’

‘Om forbid that I should try, Mistress Weatherwax. I haven’t even given you a pamphlet, have I?’

‘No, but you’re trying to make me think, “Oo, what a nice young man, his god must be something special if nice young men like him helps old ladies like me,” aren’t you?’

‘No.’

“Really? Well, it’s not working. People you can believe in, sometimes, but not gods. And I’ll tell you this, Mister Oats…’

He sighed. ‘Yes?’

She turned to face him, suddenly alive. ‘It’d be as well for you if I didn’t believe,’ she said, prodding him with a sharp finger. ‘This Om…anyone seen him?’

‘It is said three thousand people witnessed his manifestation at the Great Temple when he made the Covenant with the prophet Brutha and saved him from death by torture on the iron turtle-‘

‘But I bet that now they’re arguing about what they actually saw, eh?’

‘Well, indeed, yes, there are many opinions-‘

‘Right. Right. That’s people for you. Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother…well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like “There are two sides to every question,” and “We must respect other people’s beliefs.” You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people any more, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just…is just bein’ nice. And a way of keeping in touch with the neighbours.’

She relaxed slightly, and went on in a quieter voice: ‘Anyway, that’s what I’d be, if I really believed. And I don’t think that’s fashionable right now, ‘cos it seems that if you sees evil now you have to wring your hands and say, ‘Oh deary me, we must debate this.” That’s my two penn’orth, Mister Oats. You be happy to let things lie. Don’t chase faith, ‘cos you’ll never catch it.’ She added, almost as an aside, ‘But, perhaps, you can live faithfully.’”

Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett.

James’s Blog: The Thin Line Between Love & Hate.

James’s Blog:  The Thin Line Between Love & Hate.

I’ve just returned from speaking at our church on the topic of ‘Love’, because there’s no reason why my first church-based speaking engagement in years should be about something, you know, easy.

I used to work for a charity called Tearfund. I was in the glamorous business of, as it was known back then, ‘Income Processing’. That meant that if you sent in a donation, I was one of the people who made sure that your gift ended up allocated to the right project. You too can ascend to such dizzying heights if you have a degree in theology.

One day we received a letter with a donation. The gist of the letter was that the writer had been saving up to buy a new house, but that God had made it clear to her that she wasn’t to move. The donation was, she wrote, the money that she had saved so far towards her new house. Her donation was a cheque for £80,000.

What I remember most about this was the letter. By the tone, the wording and reading between the lines I was certain that this letter should have had a postscript, and it should have read ‘P.S. I’m not happy about this‘. There was a resigned frustration, a subtle anger in the wording. This was £80,000 worth of painful submission.

One day, an elderly man who had once walked around Palestine with an itinerant preacher and trouble-maker wrote his own letter, and in it you find the words, “This is love for God: To obey his commands.”

What an intriguing paradox; the topsy turvey Kingdom of God in action. Love for God has little to do with feelings, and much to do with obedience. Like the woman who surrendered £80,000, it is possible to be angry with God, resentful towards God, frustrated by Him, but if you do what He asks, then you love Him nonetheless. ‘A cold and broken Hallelujah,’ as Leonard Cohen sang. Hollywood tells us that we should have soaring violins and misty-eyed glances across a crowded room, but true love can be spitting bile as long as it obeys. After all, what you do shows to whom your heart really belongs.

James’s Blog: “How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth is it to have an Ungrateful Child!”

James’s Blog:  “How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth is it to have an Ungrateful Child!”

Shakespeare must have had a thing about ingratitude. As well as contributing the title of this blog entry (it’s from King Lear, fact fans), he also wrote the following:

“Blow, blow, thou winter wind.
Thou are not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude.”

That’s from As You Like It. All I can say is that he must have been on the receiving end of some very insincere thank-you-for-my-birthday-gift letters. Mind you, he’s a fine one to talk seeing as the only thing he left his wife upon his death was his ‘second best bed’.

Many years ago there was a shipwreck off the coast of Evanston in Illinois. The students of nearby Northwestern University helped with the rescue operation. One particular student, Edward Spenser, personally saved the lives of 17 people that day. A long time later, when Spenser was an elderly man, a reporter asked him what was the one thing about that incident that stood out in his mind. Spenser replied, “I remember that of the seventeen people I rescued that day, not one of them ever thanked me.”

Imagine that. A day in which you personally saved 17 lives and all you are left with is the memory of ingratitude. Blow, blow, thou winter wind indeed.

Nothing kills a gift quicker than ingratitude, and a lack of gratitude is a sure fire way to kill the gift of the Spirit of God. In Colossians 3:12 Paul is in the middle of spelling out how followers of Jesus, ‘holy and dearly loved’, should live. By the end of verse 17 Paul has instructed us three times to live gratefully. Three times in three verses actually. Thankfulness is a mark of being ‘holy and dearly loved’. To be holy, we must put on gratitude.

But of course, God gives generously to those who don’t deserve, holy and unholy alike.  In Luke 6:35 Jesus reminds us that God is ‘…kind to the ungrateful and wicked’, but I think it’s rather telling that he lumps the ‘ungrateful’ in with the ‘wicked’, don’t you?