James’s Blog: Mixed Messages.

James’s Blog:  Mixed Messages.

It’s hard to be a consistent parent, but you’d think we’d at least give ourselves a fighting chance.

I once saw a mother laying down the law to her little boy, her tone of voice suggesting that disobedience would have serious consequences. She had clearly had this type of conversation before. As she delivered some very specific instructions on behaviour, backed up by the existential threat of ‘grounding’, I couldn’t help but notice her tee-shirt. It was plain, except for the big pink letters on it that read ‘BREAK THE RULES’.

Hmmmmmm…

James’s Blog: The Discipline of Smiling

James’s Blog:  The Discipline of Smiling

I don’t want them. My spirits are not lifted to see them; my heart is hard and cold.  The visitor at the door is an intruder, wanting to take from me.

So what do I do? What I want to do is communicate to them, in a non-verbal way, that they are not welcome. A scowl. Closed body posture. An irritated tone. All these say “Go Away!” without me actually having to speak the words out loud. It’s not a sin that way, right?

And why not? I am busy. I am in the middle of something, and there’s a fifty percent chance it could be something quite important. I don’t have much time in the day. I don’t have much of myself to spread around. Besides, I’m an introvert. All the blessings that being an introvert bring come at a price to somebody else, and really, I think that they should consider themselves honoured to pay that price.

Weary and unbending, I want them to go away.

But that is not an option. I can’t do that. I know this. I have a Bible. I know all the things that Paul says about loving one another and bearing each other’s burdens and all that, but those aren’t the words that break me. What does it is that wonderful, horrible story in Matthew 14 where Jesus withdraws to grieve over the death of John the Baptist. He just wants a moment to himself. A moment to be with his Father and his thoughts. You understand that, surely. I understand it. I live it.

But the stupid, selfish crowd can’t see beyond their ugly sense of entitlement and their greed and they follow him. They won’t leave him alone, not even for a second. Like everyone, they want a piece of him. They want to be made whole, but their stupid, selfish vision won’t allow them to see what it costs Jesus. They can’t see beyond themselves. Self-centred. Self-focused. Stupid, selfish crowd.

But then…Jesus gets off the boat and sees them. What happens to the God-man? What stirs in his soul? Anger? Pain? Bitterness?  No.  I’ll tell you what it says.

“…he had compassion on them, and healed their sick.”

Give me a pair of scissors and I will cut that verse from my Bible and yours. I would expunge all record of that moment of compassion from history. Do you not see? Do you not understand? Those words will not leave me alone. I cannot sleep. I cannot get peace.  He had compassion while I was angry. He breaks the power of darkness while I send away. So, now you understand why I cannot allow the same thing that drove the crowd to drive me. Now you know why I cannot send them away.

So I submit myself to the discipline of smiling. When they come, I will smile. I may not feel compassion, but I can smile. I may not heal their sickness, but I can smile. I can deny the anger, the resentment and the bile that stirs in my soul and I can smile. I know enough to know that this is how it begins. The smile is the start. I know that one day, if I live this discipline enough, I will look up and see the face at my door and the smile will already be there before I even have to think about it. And I know that another day will come, a day when I will see the face at my door and I will feel like smiling, no matter what urgent task consumes me. I will become my smile.

I can hear the voice now. Liar! No Integrity! No Authenticity! By smiling when you resent you are denying the truth.

And I know where that voice comes from.  I know well, and I rebuke it. He is the liar. His is the call to no authenticity and no integrity.

Listen. John says it best – “How marvelous is the love that the Father extends to us. Just look at it – we are called children of God. And that is what we really are.”

And that is what we really are! So, if that is who I really am, then which action is the one that lacks integrity? The smile or the frown? If who I really am is a child of God, then it’s the anger and the resentment that doesn’t belong. It’s that which is at odds with who I really am. The feelings are the lie.  The smile is the truth breaking through.  The smile is just me being who God has made me. The rest of me just hasn’t quite caught up yet.

So, If you appear at my door and I do not seem pleased to see you, do tell me. I am trying to follow the discipline of smiling.

James’s Blog: Origin Story.

James’s Blog:  Origin Story.

It’s nearly a year ago that Lioness Publishing first agreed to take on The Listening Book, but it’s been in the pipeline for a lot longer, obviously. The oldest story in the collection (Death) was written over fifteen years ago, while even the most recent stories only exist because those past fifteen years gave me something worth writing about.

A couple of posts ago I shared a watershed moment, the one where I was challenged to actually do something with the gift that God had given me. This was way back in 2007, and I responded by resuming an Interactive Fiction project that I had shelved. A Fine Day for Reaping went on to win the XYZZY Award for Best Story in 2007. That sentence will make no sense to most of you.

Around the same time, however, I also began playing with parables. I was working for ‘The Mat Exchange’, which was a small business that Cornerstone ran. We rented door mats to shops, and my job was to drive around, exchange the dirty mats for clean ones and then go and wash them. There was a reasonable amount of time to think in this job and, one day, I was reflecting on the idea of faith, and how often I met people with an ‘inherited’ creed, beliefs that they’d just copied from others, without thinking through the consequences or really owning them themselves. I had previously read about the idea of how photocopying a photocopy decreased the quality of the image, and that had stuck with me over the years. As I drove along the mean streets of Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia, The Soul Painting was born, and by the time I had finished my shift that day I was able to sit down and write the story. Over the next few months I wrote a couple more, including Knock and the Door Shall be Opened, and By the Riverbank but I didn’t really do anything with them.

Fast forward to 2013. Now I was dean of the Cornerstone campus at Canowindra. No more mat washing for me!  Instead I got to do farm and vineyard work.  There can be some thinking time there too, at least when you’re not being shouted at.  One day, while picking watermelons, I thought that it would do me good to set myself a challenge. The challenge would be to start a blog, and post a short story every week. At first this worked fine, as I was finally able to use the stories that I had accumulated over the years. The real goal, however, was to force myself to come up with new material, and that’s what I did. Watermelon time was occasionally fruitful (pun intended). I remember concocting The Boy who Held God during one beautiful sunny day while picking watermelons (to be fair, it was almost always a beautiful sunny day during watermelon season). I soon found that one a week was an unrealistic pace, so I knocked it back to one every two weeks and just got on with it. When you write under pressure like that what you produce could charitably be called ‘a mixed bag’. Some of the stuff that I put up was fairly horrible, but all of the material that ended up in The Listening Book first appeared on my blog: ‘Storycatcher’ (“Don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore” Marty DiBergi).

The feedback was encouraging, so in the months before we returned to the UK, I put together the first draft of The Listening Book and sent it off to a publisher, who promptly rejected it. Well, not promptly.  It took him ages.  And then that was that, until we returned home and a random conversation between Elsa the Publisher and my wife started the ball rolling.  I like to think of it as a large, heavy glittery ball – something nice to look at, but with some weight to it.  Perhaps a disco ball that’s been made out of concrete?

And the rest is, as they say, history.

James’s Blog – Seeing is Believing.

James’s Blog – Seeing is Believing.

Sometimes seeing isn’t believing. There will be people that look successful and content, but aren’t. There will be marriages that look happy, but aren’t. There will be people who look as though they are faithful and enjoying a close relationship with God, but aren’t. Your eyes can deceive you.

At times, though, we deceive ourselves, and maybe what other people see is the truth. I’m thinking primarily about how faithful or not we imagine God to have been to us. Sometimes we wonder if He is keeping His end of the bargain; if He’s providing for us or if He is with us in our troubles. Does He even care for us at all?

So here’s my challenge. We know how it looks to us and how we feel about it, but how does it look to other people? Take a step outside of yourself for a moment. When other people look at you and your life, will they say that God is providing and caring for you just fine? God does do His part, and other people can sometimes see that better than we see it ourselves. I suspect that much of our uncertainty is because what we’re really thinking is, “God isn’t doing things the way that I want Him to do them.” It’s like that old truism – most people are very happy to serve God, but only in an advisory capacity. So, being objective for a second, stop thinking about how it feels to you and ask yourself what it looks like to other people?

James’s Blog: The Parable of the Talents – Two

James’s Blog:  The Parable of the Talents – Two

My family and I were part of Cornerstone Community for about eight years. For those of you who don’t know, Cornerstone is an Australian mission and discipling movement, and it’s been going for about as long as I’ve been alive. It’s far from perfect, but it must have been doing something right. There are countless well-meaning Christian communities that have imploded within their first five years. Why has God kept Cornerstone around? What is the magic ingredient?

I wonder if one of the things that God enjoys about Cornerstone is that, fundamentally, it’s a risk-taking venture. I’m sure those who are responsible for the organisation’s accounts will agree with me, but others might not be so sure. Well, trust me. I’ve been involved in local church leadership and been a member of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, so I know what I’m talking about. There are churches that consider themselves ‘edgy’ because they’ve recently changed the time of their evening service. There has always been a touch of the Mad Scientist about Cornerstone – “Well, if Jesus really said that, what happens if we try this..?” I think God likes it. I’m not sure there’s  a risk-free way to build bridges to heaven.

There’s a lot of theology you can be wrong about, and still be a Christian. Predestination, women in leadership, the Rapture, what worship really is, the role of Israel in God’s plans, what the point of the Sabbath is, whether or not Donald Trump is the Antichrist etc.  I used to think that my position on some of those things was really important. Now I’m not so sure. However, I do know that there are plenty of churches where the stuff about Jesus being God and dying for our sins and all that is just a given, and that the real meat and drink is in the kind of stuff that I’ve just listed – and you’d better make sure that you believe the right things. I know of at least one church where ministers are selected based on their response to a grilling from the congregation about these kind of issues (maybe not the Donald Trump one).

The thing is, what happens if you subconsciously create a church environment where it’s a terrible crime to believe the wrong thing about these topics? What if everyone has to be on the same page about everything, or they’re persona non grata? What if what you’ve communicated over the years is not actually the gospel, but rather the message that the worst sin in the world is to get it wrong? What happens to a church like that? It won’t be a risk-taking church, because the problem with risks is that sometimes you can get it very wrong.

I remember taking a very specific risk once, and it going wrong. I crashed and burned in a humiliating way. The scars from that failure are still with me – all these years later and I still haven’t totally recovered. But I don’t regret it for a second, because I know that if God ever brings it up in conversation I can say, “Sure God, it didn’t work out brilliantly, but at least I tried.” I’m sure that God’s response will be to smile, because He is a risk-taking God and has a soft spot for risk-taking children. I remember hearing a story once about a woman who criticised D.L. Moody for the way that he evangelised. His response: “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it”. I think that God agrees.

When I read ‘The Parable of the Talents’ another thought that I can’t get out of my head is that there are no rewards, no prizes in heaven for caution. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sometimes, as I read it, I wonder what the master’s response would have been if the servant with five talents had lost them all in his investment scheme. I like to think that he would still had more time for that servant than for the one who sat on his hands. I don’t know for sure, and such speculation doesn’t really have a place in the interpretation of parables anyway. Jesus told it to make a specific point, and a different point would have required a different parable altogether. Maybe if he’d been surrounded by reckless, careless disciples he would have told a parable about a man who suffered because of a foolish risk, but as it is he told a parable about a man who was rejected by his master because he was too cautious and not risk-taking enough. I wonder why he felt the need to tell us that one?