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.

James’s Blog: What Hosea Said.

James’s Blog:  What Hosea Said.

Here’s a twelve year old sermon that I’ve edited into a blog post. This one was on Hosea 6 & 7, and is a lot longer than the last sermon I revisited on these pages. It also required a lot more editing – I had to remove some especially dated references. Listen, it’s not that I’m too lazy to come up with something original – it’s rather that I don’t think I’ll ever preach this sermon again, so I’m putting it on the internet for posterity. Yes, that’s it.

I have a friend. Some of you will have a friend like this. He keeps making harmful decisions, because he’s…well, I don’t know why he does it. It’s not as bad now, thankfully, but back when we hung out it was crazy. It would be easier to understand if he wasn’t a Christian, but he is. He’s been a Christian since he was young, but he walks this fine line with his faith. It’s not that he’s not committed, or not sincere. To be honest, I just don’t know what it is.

He goes through up and downs, like most of us. Sometimes he’s passionate about God, sometimes he’s not. He knows his Bible. He knows it well, and he’s got a good grasp of theology.

But, well, it’s almost like he knows it, but he never lets the information make the journey from his head to his heart. It’s like he’s going through the motions a lot of the time, because he knows it’s what he should be doing, and thinking, and feeling, but it’s as though it’s not quite real for him. But again, he’s sincere. He knows who Jesus is, but he just doesn’t seem to be able to make the connection between that and living for God.

Take relationships, for example. He just makes bad choices when it comes to women. It’s not even that he goes out with non-Christians. He meets girls at church that are just as messed up as he is. In the two year period that I was closest to him, he had four girlfriends and none of them were good for him. It’s like these relationships seem to shut God out of his life. They never last, but I reckon that’s a good thing, because as damaging as these relationships are in the short term, I dread to think what he’d be like if he’d been going out with one of these girls for years rather than months.

He’s highly suggestible too. Easily swayed by outward appearances and advertising. Suckered in by any and every half-baked scheme; wasting his money on stuff that can’t help him. He knows that Christ alone offers satisfaction and health; he knows this. But like I said, he doesn’t know it. He was always showing me the stuff he’d bought. He was always showing me and telling me about his new toy and how it was the thing that he’d really been after – but he got through stuff pretty quickly. Some of my other friends did very well off him, waiting for him to get bored with his new purchase and then buying it off him on the cheap.

I remember one conversation we had outside Currys. We were waiting for a bus and he was talking to me about Jesus and God and stuff. He was saying all the right things, about how he’d just got out of one of those destructive relationships. He was telling me how he’d really drawn strength from his faith, and how he felt closer to God, and that he realised that God was all that he needed and the source of the hope that he’d been missing. He said that he needed to get that relationship back on track. But it was weird; he was saying all this, and I noticed that as he was talking his eyes were drifting, until it was obvious that he was looking elsewhere.

I followed his gaze to see that he was looking in the shop window, at a huge widescreen TV. There was no sound, but it was the adverts. He was there talking to me about God, but watching the adverts. That kind of sums him up really. Talks the talk, says the right things, and knows the right things, but is focused on something else. His mind is elsewhere. Talks about God, but watches the adverts.

It wouldn’t be so bad, but he really didn’t have a clue what he was like. He just didn’t get it. He knew something was wrong, but he didn’t understand what. He didn’t know that he was doing it to himself. I tried to tell him. Lots of people tried to tell him. I’m not the only one. He’s been very blessed, really, that God has sent a constant stream of people to try and show him and tell him that something’s got to change, but he never really makes the connection. Sometimes it gets close. Sometimes he says something that makes you think, “Wow, it’s finally sunk in,” but soon you realise that it was a moment of clarity and nothing else. Just part of the right language he knows, but isn’t sure what to do with.

Do you want to know his name? You might already know his name.

He goes by many names, but most of the time he’s simply called ‘Israel’. Sometimes Ephraim. Sometimes Judah. It’s all similar you know. One of his friends, a guy called Hosea, tried to make him see sense. Like I said, just one of many friends who say the same things, and it seems like he never listens.

Hosea said to him, “You’ve had four girlfriend in the past two years…” well, what Hosea actually said was, “You’ve had four kings in the past twenty years…” but it’s the same thing really. Hosea said, or rather God said through Hosea, “You’ve had four kings in the past twenty years – and each one of them was assassinated. You know what? Not one of them ever called out to me.”

What do you expect for Israel when he’s in those kind of relationships? And God said to him, “It’s not your ideas that are half-baked – it’s you! You’re like a half-baked cake. Mixed in with all the wrong ingredients and the final act, the act of turning back to Me, left undone.”

God said to him, “You invest your time and money and energy into these foreign powers, these idols, and they’re just robbing you. You’re paying tribute to foreign powers and smiling, unaware that you’re just draining yourself of your resources for no gain.”

God said to him “You’re like a bird that’s easily scared from branch to branch, flitting and flying here and there. Stupid, easily trapped and ensnared in something that’s no good for you.”

God said to him, “The worst thing is that you smile about it. You are totally unaware of what’s happening. You think that this is how it should be, how I want it to be! You just don’t seem to want to understand! Wake up and smell the coffee!”

That’s what Hosea used to tell him. He was much better at speaking to Israel than me.

Anyway, we drifted apart. I wasn’t too worried because, despite everything, he seemed to be one of those people that God had taken a special interest in, and seemed to be making a lot of effort for. I totally lost contact with him until very recently, when I bumped into him on a train – one of those chance encounters, you know. He looked really well. I didn’t recognise him at first. He spotted me. I said, “You look good.” He said, “Yeah, things are going well. I’ve changed a lot since you saw me last. Me and God, we’ve moved on to a new stage in our relationship. It’s great. It’s working very well.” He did seem to be different, in a good way, but I was a little concerned. I saw it in his eyes. I noticed the way his attention flicked to an attractive girl who entered the carriage and stayed just a little bit too long. I noticed that when we were waiting at a station there was a whole chunk of the conversation that he missed because he was mesmerised by an advertising billboard on the platform. On the whole he seemed much better, it’s just I was a little worried that the signs were still there, that he wouldn’t have to fall too far to totally slip back to where he was.

We reached his station and he got out. “Good to see you again, Israel,” I said. He smiled and said, “You too, James. But my name’s not Israel anymore. I changed it. My name is Church.”

Church. It seemed to suit him. But, well, you know. I hope that it lasts. I’d hate for a few years down the line his new friends to be saying exactly the same kind of things that Hosea used to say. I’d hate for it to be all as it was when I knew him, and that the only thing that had changed was that people were calling him Church instead of Israel.

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.

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