James’s Blog: Hide & Seek with God.

James’s Blog:  Hide & Seek with God.

The best time to play Hide & Seek with your children is when they’re old enough to be a bit creative with hiding places, but still small enough to be able to contort themselves into all kinds of sneaky nooks and crannies. If they’re too young, they’re often easy prey for even a semi-competent Seeker. I have played Hide & Seek with children who hide in the exact same spot where they hid last time; children who hide in the exact same spot where you hid last time; children who scream in terror and give away their position as soon as they hear “Ready or not, here I come!”; children who think that curling up in a ball in the middle of an empty room is an adequate hiding place, and children who think that I will not notice limbs or heads protruding from cupboards. Usually I pretend that they are more hidden than they actually are. Life is hard enough without having an ungenerous parent.

That first significant encounter with God is often a long and difficult journey, but once you’ve truly met Him, He becomes like a small child. He will engage in the odd game of Hide & Seek, but usually favours the ‘curling up in a ball in the middle of the room’ tactic, because – like all small children – really He wants to be found. But I have also come to realise that there are plenty of Christians who pretend not to notice Him, not because they’re being an accommodating parent, but because they don’t want to find Him. I’m talking about Christians who don’t find the God who wants to be found because it’ll ruin their sulk, or Christians who have their heads so tangled up in bad theology that they can no longer tell the difference between God and an armchair.

In a recent post I questioned whether or not God is ever far from us. In this post I am suggesting that He is often closer then we think, and can barely contain His hiddenness, but sometimes we stubbornly refuse to meet His gaze, because we prefer to hold on to our self-pity or our false view of God as some distant, impersonal Chess master.

I know that life is complicated, and metaphors are often inadequate, but I also know that there are plenty of times where I am my own worst enemy and that, if I’m honest, there are times when I haven’t met with God and I’d rather pretend that it was His fault.

James’s Blog: My Wife.

James’s Blog:  My Wife.

There was a very small window when Ruth was the more prominent one in our relationship. We were newly married and she got involved with the worship group at church, while I sat in the pew saying and doing nothing worthy of notice. In those days I was known as ‘Ruth’s husband’. Eventually I began preaching, and even ended up working for the church for a few months, so that was the end of that. Since those days Ruth has mostly been ‘James’ wife’.

I am typically the more public of the two of us, which is ironic because she is infinitely more sociable than I am, and better with people generally, but that’s just one of the many crosses that she has to bear. It’s also ironic because most people don’t realise that, when they’re thanking or encouraging me for my speaking or writing, there would be no words without her. Without her, life would have chewed me up and spat me out many years ago. I only have things to say because of the road we’ve travelled, and without her I wouldn’t have survived the journey. She has been my best friend and my most loyal champion over the years, and without her I dread to think what kind of existence I would have had.

I don’t believe that there’s Biblical justification for the concept of ‘soul mates’, but I do believe that there are certain partners who will bring out the best in us, and who will be of almost limitless help in our journey to become more like Jesus. I also believe that when looking for a spouse, the question “Will this person help me grow, and can I help them grow?” is without doubt the most important question to ask. I was young when I married, and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was pursuing God, and that shaped the many conversations that He and I had about Ruth. Knowing me as He does, He knew that she would be good for me.  Ruth has been my greatest proof of God’s generosity and grace.

James’s Blog: No Blog Post This Week.

James’s Blog:  No Blog Post This Week.

There’s no blog post this week.

Sometimes life is like that – a combination of business and distractions that make it hard to find inspiration.  Sometimes, when it is most appropriate to reflect is also the hardest time to reflect.  Christmas, the celebration of Christ, is so full of things other than Christ that we find we’ve hardly noticed the manger in the corner.  And as we approach a new year – a perfect time to ask ourselves some searching and difficult questions – we find that our days of full of other types of questions:  “What’s on TV today?” or “Are the shops open yet?”

That’s where I’ve find myself.  But I’ve also given myself permission to not write a blog this week, because it’s actually OK.  The world keeps spinning, and God keeps working, and – as I suggested last week – sometime the things that you think are holy are actually a distraction from the real work of holiness.  There’s a time to kneel in front of the altar, and there’s a time to lose yourself in laughter with your family.  Both belong to God.  It reminds me of something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Letters and Papers from Prison:  “The man who is thinking of the Kingdom of God while in the arms of his wife is not doing the will of God.”  Celebration, love, laughter and distraction can be God’s will too sometimes.

So that’s why there’s no blog post this week.

James’s Blog: Dude, Where’s My Peace?

James’s Blog:  Dude, Where’s My Peace?

It’s been a hectic week.  It’s not just been the build up to Christmas, though that doesn’t help, but Ruth has also had an operation which has put her out of action, so it’s been a one-man show round here for the past few days (she’s doing well, by the way).  I’ve also been very conscious of the fact that I need to come up with a blog post.  Knowing that I have to produce some genius every Thursday adds to the stress and pressure, which I don’t always handle well.  There have been a few moments this week when I’ve lost my cool, and my children have been the ones that have suffered.  This morning I was reflecting on the irony:  I’ve been stressed because I have to write about Christianity, when I should have just made it a priority to be a Christian.

I surrender my peace so cheaply.  A little bit of pressure, and I burst.  This time of year they call Jesus the Prince of Peace.  I’m not sure that Jesus is the type of peace bringer that we want.  We want an end to war, and we want some peace and quiet.  I guess that one day Jesus will bring those things, but in the meantime he is an odd sort of Prince.  The peace he brings doesn’t depend on what’s going on around us.  Rather, he gives a peace that survives war – not freedom from fighting, but a quiet calm in the midst of the fighting, no matter how hectic.

I forget this, and let myself be controlled by the conflict around me.  But Jesus is not just the Prince of Peace, he’s also the Eraser of Guilt and the Master of Second Chances.

Merry Christmas!

James’s Blog: Some Beautiful Waste.

James’s Blog:  Some Beautiful Waste.

It’s a picturesque time of year, as Christmas summons frosted grass and offers a horizon spotted with naked trees. But it’s cold and wet, and that makes it less picturesque. In these conditions, the autumnal waste creates work. Every couple of weeks I have to pull manky, slimy leaves from the drain behind our kitchen or we get an overflow of yucky water outside. There’s no Yuletide cheer in that job, let me tell you.

It’s something of a shame, because it mars the beauty of those discarded leaves. When dry, those withered brown skeletons are one of my favourite things about autumn. There’s something magical about a big pile of those jagged, crunchy seasonal off-cuts. Granted, they become quite disgusting after a few days of being drenched in grey water, but what doesn’t?

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I don’t think so. It’s amazing, isn’t it, to live in a world where something that nature is throwing away is so magnificent.

Now, if even God’s rubbish is beautiful, what does that make you?

James’s Blog: Reasons to be Cheerful.

James’s Blog:  Reasons to be Cheerful.

I cried out to God for help;

I cried out to God to hear me.

 

Is it possible for God to ever be far from us? Does He ever withdraw Himself? We can debate these questions all day long, but one thing is certain – sometimes it feels like He’s gone away.

 

I thought about the former days, the years of long ago;

I remembered my songs in the night.

My heart mused and my spirit enquired:

Will the Lord reject for ever?

Will he never show his favour again?”

 

On those days, we wonder if we will ever know His presence again. It seems like such a terminal condition. When you’re in the desert, there’s nothing but sand as far as the eye can see.

 

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:

the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

I will remember the deeds of the LORD;

yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

I will meditate on all your works

and consider all your mighty deeds.

 

But when I feel that distance, I remember that there have been many times in my life when God has felt impossibly close. I remember specific, life-shaping encounters; dragons being slain; explicit guidance; tears of gratitude. I remember times when God was so real to me that I cried out, “LORD, I can’t imagine ever being depressed again!”

 

Your ways, O God, are holy.

What god is so great as our God?

You are the God who performs miracles;

you display your power among the peoples.

 

And I realise that someone, somewhere, is meeting with God right now. Someone is bumping into Jesus for the first time. Someone is being healed; forgiven; challenged; changed forever. Someone, somewhere in this world is in the middle of a full-on, black and white encounter with the Father’s grace. God may feel distant from me right now, but I am a very small part of a very big universe. In my solitary, self-centred world I may suffer, but I have a big family. Somewhere, one of my brothers or sisters feels as close to God as they have ever felt.

I celebrate. I rejoice with this unnamed, unknown saint.

I am thankful, because I remember that although God feels absent today, He will draw near again. He always does.

When I was younger, the desert would often stretch out for days and months. These days I’m better at finding the hidden streams. Sometimes God feels far away, but not for long.

James’s Blog: Gath and Adullam

James’s Blog:  Gath and Adullam

(Inspired by 1 Samuel 21:10 to 1 Samuel 22:2)

 

David was not a king,

just a running man;

pursued by another

with blood on his mind.

 

David was not a king,

but would this running man

threaten Gath’s Saul?

Would this refugee bring war?

 

David was not a king,

just a drooling man;

scratching with ragged nails

while royal Achish laughed.

 

David was not a king,

just a cowering man,

a cave, a hole in the ground,

like a beetle hid from the sun.

 

David was not a king,

but men sought him out;

four hundred losers,

debt, upset and probably never satisfied.

 

David was not a king,

beard still damp from indignity,

followed by an uninspiring mob,

and here is a man after my own heart.

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.

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