James’s Blog: When Perfection is the Enemy of Good.

James’s Blog:  When Perfection is the Enemy of Good.

One of the soundbites that I picked up when I was in leadership was ‘A bad decision is better than no decision’. I struggled with this because I didn’t like making bad decisions. I was always much happier if I had all the time in the world to weigh up all the options and eventually come up with the perfect decision, a decision designed to solve the problem whilst inconveniencing or upsetting as few people as possible. In general, my natural state is to be paralysed by indecision.

Over time I began to understand that the advice was sound. The wrong decision was better than no decision. Withering on the vine was worse than moving forward and making a mistake. Doing nothing was, in my case, about fear, and that’s no good.  It was kind of a paradigm shift for me, and I’m still wrestling with and reflecting on the consequences.

During this struggle, I began to notice how easy it was to find people who would not get involved in something unless it was perfect. An idea might be proposed, which was good but flawed, and then someone who would reject the project on the basis of its flaws but follow this up by then doing nothing but acting like they had the moral high ground. Strange. Christians, with our various passions, theological preferences and hobby horses, seem particularly prone to this.

What I’ve come to realise is that there is no good deed, no charity, no well-meaning policy that is free from imperfection, but that cannot be used as a justification to do nothing. It’s OK to  have a problem with whatever project or work that we have a problem with. It’s OK that we don’t want to support it. It’s OK, but we must make sure that we’re doing something good in some other way, and meeting needs through some other venture, because otherwise when it comes down to a choice between those who do good imperfectly, and those who sit on their hands, we all know very well which side God is on.

James’s Blog: Exchanging the Truth of God for a Lie.

James’s Blog:  Exchanging the Truth of God for a Lie.

It always begins with a lie.

In the garden, the first of us chose to reject the truth, and chose to believe a lie.  It broke us, sold us into slavery.  Ever since the first, the Father of Lies has been keeping us in our chains by sidling up to us, and in a pleasant tone of voice asking what seems a most reasonable question – “Did God really say…?”

“Did God really say that He would be with you, whatever you face?  If that’s the truth, then why do you feel so alone?”

“Did God really say that you are worth something to Him?  If that’s the truth, why do your failures define you?”

“Did God really say that following Him brings life to the full?  If that’s the truth, why are you so bored and disillusioned?”

The lie seems to make sense of our experience, so we believe it.

But does the lie make sense of our experience, or does our experience just confirm that we have already believed the lie?

Is God really absent, or do we just believe that He is absent?  Are we really defined by our failures, or do we just believe that we are defined by our failures?  Is this really as good as following Christ gets, or do we just believe that this is as good as following Christ gets?

You know the stuff that Jesus says?  What if it were true?  All of it?  What if the problem is not that it’s false, but that we don’t believe it?  What if “God really did say…” and the only reason we don’t enjoy the freedom of this truth is because we choose the chains of a lie instead.

Why would we do that?  Why would anyone choose to believe what is not true?

I don’t know why we do, but we do.  Perhaps it’s because by the time we encounter the truth, we are already weighed down by a thousand lies.  Perhaps it’s because it really does seem too good to be true.  Perhaps it’s because we just don’t know the truth as well as we think that we do.  Perhaps it’s because trusting God is just too much of a risk for us right now.

A lie is something false, but if you believe it then you give it power.  What is unreal becomes real, and it controls the way that we relate to the world.

Don’t believe me?

There was once a man whose car suffered a flat tyre whilst driving along a deserted country road.  He had a spare, but was unable to change it because, when he went to look, his jack was missing.  What to do?

Looking into the paddock on his left, he noticed – far in the distance – a building.  It must be a farmhouse, he reasoned, and hopping over the fence he began walking, hoping that the farmer would have a jack that he could borrow.

Well, the farmhouse was further away than he’d thought.  The sun was setting, and clouds were gathering ominously in the sky.  It began to get dark.  The driver began rehearsing the conversation in his mind.

“I will ask to borrow a jack, and then I’ll have to run back and change the tyre before it gets too dark.”

As the man pondered this, it began to rain.

“Of course, it’s raining.  The farmer will take one look at the rain and decide that he doesn’t want to go to the trouble of coming out to help me find the jack.  I’d have to find it myself.  In his shed, which is probably full of old machinery and rubbish!”

The sun set, and the sky got darker.

“So there I am, in a dark shed looking for a jack, tripping over junk every step I take.  I’m cold and wet, and the farmer – who knows exactly where the jack is – is sitting in his house by the fire, drinking a hot cup of coffee!”

The man got angrier and angrier as he reflected on this injustice, and as the moon began to rise, he had another realisation.

“It’s night time now, and I bet the farmer has already gone to bed.  And when I knock, he’s not going to want to get out of bed.  He’s going to pretend he can’t hear me!  There I’ll be on his doorstep, cold, wet and tired, and he’s not even going to answer the door.  I’ll be there without a jack after all.”

Furious, the driver finally reached the farmhouse.  He pounded on the door until he heard a timid voice from inside, “Who is it?”

“You know full well who it is, you selfish old goat!  And I wouldn’t borrow your jack if it were the last one on earth!” bellowed the driver, before he stormed off.

Still don’t believe me?

James’s Blog: (Mis)Understanding Parables.

James’s Blog:  (Mis)Understanding Parables.

I don’t normally divulge the meaning behind the stories that I’ve written, partly because I don’t want to prejudice the reader and partly because I’m a contrary so-and-so, but let’s talk about the story ‘Border Control’. This one appears in The Second Listening Book and, as usual, I had something deliberate in mind when I wrote it. I believe that the Gospel changes our fundamental character – not tidies it up, or papers over it, but actually transforms it. We were sinners, we are now children of God. However, some Christian leaders undermine God’s grace by teaching that we should continue to define ourselves by our old nature – as though the Gospel is some kind of illusory magic trick that makes us look good to God but offers no real change. I tried to express my frustration with this bad theology through ‘Border Control’, a story set at an immigration station, where the guards funnel new arrivals into a holding camp and leave them thinking that being trapped behind barbed wire is the same as being a free citizen of their new country.

I wrote it before Brexit and President Trump made immigration into an even more divisive topic, but the story has only been available since those events. One reviewer took the parable at face value, assumed it was liberal political commentary on immigration and took me to task on my naivety. Now, I am naïve, but only because I’m consistently surprised when people don’t get what I’m really trying to say. You’d think I’d have learned by now.

Someone else once commented that they didn’t get one of my parables, and that this made it a bad parable, because the meaning of parables are supposed to be clear. Unsurprisingly, I disagree.  The disciples, who knew Jesus best, floundered repeatedly on this issue, scratching their heads and saying, “Tell us what this parable means…” once the crowds had dispersed. When they summoned up the courage to ask Jesus why he used parables in the first place, Jesus responds by quoting Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”

I don’t mind people not understanding my stories and I don’t mind them getting something other than what I originally intended – that’s actually quite exciting. What I do mind though is people thinking that I’m a one-dimensional writer. It’s OK for me to get my ego bruised once in a while, but it’s also OK to come away from a parable confused, or encouraged, or feeling like you’ve been kicked in the gut.

Thanks to two thousand years of Sunday School, we think we ‘get’ parables, but let’s be honest. Had we been there when Jesus first spoke, we likely would have missed the point too. If Jesus turned up today in Hyde Park and told the Parable of the Prodigal Son for the first time I’m sure that there would be some Evangelicals lining up to lambaste him for being soft on sin. If he’d told the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard I’m sure that sections of the American Religious Right would have denounced him as a ‘dangerous socialist’.  It’s almost like Jesus was looking for trouble, using stories that arouse confusion and anger in equal measure.

Everyone these days knows that Samaritans are Good, but when Jesus first told that parable, Samaritans were anything but. ‘Samaritan’ was a crude swearword that a good Jew, a Jew like the one who asked Jesus the original question in Luke 10, couldn’t even bring himself to say. There are plenty of despised people groups at the moment. Think of the one group that makes you the most suspicious, the ones that you find it the easiest to hate and the hardest to love. Would you have followed Jesus if he’d recast one of them as the Samaritan in his parable?

The thing is, it was people like us – people with opinions – who wanted Jesus dead.

James’s Blog: The Small Things.

James’s Blog:  The Small Things.

I’m not an adventurous person, but the twists and turns of my life suggest that, for me at least, God implements such things as ‘compulsory adventures’. The problem is that being between adventures leaves me tormented by restlessness. I’m not exaggerating for effect (who me?).  ‘Tormented’ is a carefully chosen word.  I suspect this is a condition I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my days. It’s difficult.

My mistake is to think that life is about these big, momentous experiences, and eavesdropping on our culture only reinforces this misunderstanding. As a rule, we’re encouraged to sleepwalk our way through the week, looking forward to the weekend, or a holiday, or the Next Big Thing. It’s true that life can feel like long periods of boredom punctuated by brief periods of excitement, but only being enthusiastic about adventure is no way to live.

Actually, those long periods of boredom are crucially important. It’s the small things that we fill our lives with that make the difference, and as Richard Wurmbrand said, “Saints are those who do small things well.” The fruit of our lives comes from what we plant in the uneventful, not what we do on our compulsory adventures. We think that significant Christian leaders, the sort of people whose stories are told long after they are gone, are significant purely because they make the most of big opportunities. No. They’re men and women who make the most of the small things, and when the big things come their way they’re already so used to putting God front and centre that they take advantage of adventures out of habit. If you keep God to one side, waiting for something big to come along, then you’ll find that He won’t fit into your life because you’ve already filled it with junk.

Today’s blog post is just for me. I need to remind myself of what is true, especially during these grumpy weeks. Sitting down, staring in front of a blank screen and painfully squeezing words onto a page is good medicine. It’s one of the small things that I need to fill my life with in order to qualify for the next compulsory adventure.

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