James’s Blog: My Philosophy of Communication.

James’s Blog:  My Philosophy of Communication.

Isn’t it nice when you discover that someone has puts into words something that you already knew to be true on an instinctual level?  A few years ago I stumbled upon a quote that resonated with my soul.  As a preacher/teacher, I sort of knew what I was trying to do – I wasn’t really so interested in ‘educating’ as I was in ‘inspiring’.  However, ‘Inspiring’ is not usually listed as a Learning Outcome on many course outlines, much to my disappointment.

What I had realised from my own life is that inspiring someone is often better than just educating, simply because inspiration is its own motivation.  Teaching someone how to read the Bible is good, but it won’t necessarily lead to more Bibles being read.  Inspiring someone to read the Bible – well, that’s a different matter.  People who are motivated to do something will find ways of doing it, even if they haven’t been taught how to.  Of course, the best preaching/teaching does both – teaches you how to do something and motivates you to do it.  I might be in a minority here, but if I can only do one of those thing I’ll plump for inspiration every time.  When I look back on my life, it’s been my desire to follow Christ that has carried me through the dry, hard, lonely times.  God can make up for the shortfall of ignorance, but He can’t do anything with a cold heart.

Anyway, the quote.  It’s from a French writer and pilot called Antoine de Saint-Expury:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders.  Instead teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

How much better would the quality of our faith be if we had not taught people ‘The Christian Way to Do Things’, but instead had given them a hunger for God?

James’s Blog: Silence in Heaven.

James’s Blog:  Silence in Heaven.

Sometimes I don’t have any words, which can be a bit awkward because words are supposed to be my thing. But sometimes, after the past couple of weeks, with politics and faith, terrorism and flames, there are no words. All I have is silence.

It makes me think of the beginning of Revelation chapter 8, when the seventh seal is opened and there is silence in heaven for half an hour. Did you know that sometimes heaven is silent too? If you’re one of those people who can’t bear silence, who has to fill a void with words, no matter how banal or ill chosen, then you might want to get some practice in being silent – there will come a time when words aren’t welcome.

Even in God’s presence, there are times when no words will do. I like that. When I have nothing to say, I don’t need to say anything, because the citizens of heaven know what it is like to have no words.

James’s Blog: Memento – Part Two.

James’s Blog:  Memento – Part Two.

Most of us get bruised as we make our way through this world. Sometimes those bruises take a long time to heal, and might leave us tender and scarred beneath the surface. In Memento, Leonard lets his tattoos and notes guide him. He trusts them completely, and they become his truth. In the same way, we sometimes let our wounds control our actions and outlook on life. The world is full of people who let their scars do the talking.

I find it interesting that the risen Jesus still had the wounds from his crucifixion. It makes me speculate: perhaps those wounds that we have suffered in service to God will be a part of our perfect resurrection body. Our images of heaven might feature beautiful men and women with perfect teeth and unblemished skin, but I wonder if the truth might be different. Perhaps Paul, and all those who can say with him that they “…bear on my body the marks of Jesus…” might still have those wounds in heaven and – far from being a sign of imperfection and suffering – they might be a badge of honour.

But, as I was saying, sometimes those wounds are hidden; there are unseen scars. They count too. As I hinted at above, it’s the unseen tattoos that tend to have the most control over us. I’ve acquired a few cuts and grazes on my soul in my attempts to follow Jesus, but I don’t want them to shape me negatively. Instead I try to think of them a bit like Memento tattoos. They spell out words too – words like obedient and owned by God and faithful. After all, I wouldn’t have got them if it wasn’t for the risks I’ve taken in trying to serve Him. I don’t want to ignore them, or try to pretend that they’re not there, but neither do I want to relate to the world out of hurts and disappointments. Paul, the master of being wounded both by and for God, understood, I think, that these internal tattoos were sacraments – reminders of the divine – when he said, “…I delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties, for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

James’s Blog: Memento – Part One.

James’s Blog:  Memento – Part One.

Memento is a film about Leonard’s search for the enigmatic ‘John G’ – the man who killed his wife. The challenge for Leonard (played by Mike from Neighbours) is that he suffers from short-term memory loss. This throws a spanner in the works of his detectoring. He gets around this inconvenience with a collection of Polaroid photographs and a mass of tattoos that remind him of important snippets of information he has gleaned over the years. Of course, him constantly having to make sense of all this information anew is part of where the film’s twists and turns come from.

I have to say that I am quite taken with the idea of having really important things that I need to remember tattooed on myself. I’m aware of my own short-term memory loss that sees me forgetting who I really am, and playing the wrong game. If it was up to me, I’d go full-Memento and cover myself with black ink – FACT 1: You are a Son of God  FACT 2: Remember that God thinks everyone you meet was worth the life of Jesus and so on. Ruth won’t let me do this, and that’s fair enough. It’s one of many reasons why she’s good to have around. It’s a shame though, as my middle-aged weight gain is beginning to show, so I’ve got plenty of room on my slowly-expanding canvas for some really important truths. So, I have to think of other less drastic ways to remember important things, because I really don’t want to forget.

Interestingly though, I think that there are such things as hidden tattoos, but more on that next week…

James’s Blog: Creating Life.

James’s Blog:  Creating Life.

I really needed my character to make that phone call, but it just wasn’t working. The story demanded that he pick up the phone and dial those numbers, but it didn’t feel right. So what do I do now, when I have a story, but a character who doesn’t want to play ball? “All right,” I said to my character, “what do you want to do then?” You can imagine my shock and disappointment when he took that scrap of paper with the phone number on it, scrunched it up and threw it in the bin. “What are you doing?” I said, “I need you to phone that number!” But it was no good. He wasn’t going to make the call.

Once I’d recovered, I realised that it made sense. This character, the person that he was, wouldn’t make the call. Not yet. So he didn’t, and I was left at a loose end. Instead of following the plot, we went on a detour and did something else for a while. Then several pages later, he was pulling that piece of paper out of the bin so that he could make the call, all of his own accord. The story was back on track. We got there eventually, but he had to be ready.

A lot of writers advocate this – you don’t write the story, you write the characters and then let them decide on the story. When it works you have a tale that is internally consistent and compelling, but you have to know your characters. They have to be real people who can tell you what they would say and do and feel. You just listen, and put it on paper.

I know there are some writers who don’t even have a story when they start. They just have a bunch of fleshed-out characters and a starting situation (what Robert McKee would call an ‘Inciting Incident’), and see where it all goes. I’m not quite like that. I like to have an end goal in mind, but it definitely works better when I let the characters get me there, rather than railroad them towards their destiny. Of course, that means surrendering some control.

Letting the life that you have created exercise free will is hard work, and riskier than the alternative, but it creates a richer story and leads to a greater reward.

James’s Blog: The Cost of Discipleship.

James’s Blog:  The Cost of Discipleship.

“Go away!” squealed the Ghost.  “Go away!  Can’t you see I want to be left alone?”

“But you need help,” said the Solid One.

“If you have the least trace of decent feeling left,” said the Ghost, “you’ll keep away.  I don’t want help.  I want to be left alone…”

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

‘Insufficient’ is not a word that good Evangelicals would typically apply to Jesus’ death, but Paul wasn’t so squeamish.  Notice what he tells the Colossians: ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the Church.’

Paul is not, of course, suggesting that we need more than Jesus to restore our relationship with the Father, rather he is saying, “Jesus’ suffering may bring salvation, but it does not necessarily bring maturity.  Spiritual growth doesn’t just happen.  You need someone to get alongside you and teach you, feed you and change your dirty nappies.  That’s the job that I’ve taken on for the Church, and let me tell you this: It’s a costly business.”

That’s the hidden cost of discipleship.  In our immaturity we don’t realise that the men and women who invest in us, and help us get to know God better, can only do so by giving up something of themselves.  I think about the time people spent with me rather than doing something infinitely preferable; I think about the suffering that others went through so that I could be spared some of the same pain; I think about those who spend an hour on Sunday mornings helping my children get to know God.

But this reliance on one another, rather than just God, isn’t some oversight on His part; some side effect of sin.  It’s the divine core of discipleship.  God wouldn’t have it any other way.  He’s terribly keen on interdependence, you know.  It’s what He wants, for us to need others; it’s the inbuilt ‘flaw’ that forces us into relationships – forces us to emulate the Trinity.  If Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were sufficient not just for salvation, but made our spiritual growth inevitable, then we wouldn’t need community.  We could retreat to our monastic cells and just sit around, waiting for sanctification to kick in.  God’s not going to give us that excuse.  So He made it that for me to grow, I need people, and those people have to pay a debt of love.  And then He made it so that I have to do the same for others.  Clever.  That’s probably why Paul felt able to rejoice in this particular cost of discipleship.

James’s Blog: In Gratitude for Dianne Tyson.

James’s Blog:  In Gratitude for Dianne Tyson.

I didn’t ever meet Dianne, but that didn’t matter.  She didn’t even reach sixty, but that didn’t matter either.  A lot of things about Dianne didn’t seem to matter.  The fact that she was plagued with crippling health problems and constant pain – that didn’t matter either.  She had a lot to bitter about, but she didn’t let those things matter.

She spoke openly about her suffering, but she was a fine example of someone who didn’t let herself be defined by the things that had happened to her, but instead redefined those things in the light of who God had made her to be.  She was physically inactive, but spiritually active.  Not just spiritually active, I suppose, but spiritually vibrant; spiritually contagious even.  For those of you who don’t know, she prayed faithfully for me and many others on a regular basis, and those prayers did matter.  When Dianne phoned you and said, “I was praying for you yesterday and I felt like God was saying…”, well, you’d better have listened.  She was the sort of person that caused Satan to break out into a cold sweat.  That may sound a touch melodramatic, but I have experienced first hand how God used her to thwart the enemy’s little schemes, and I know I’m not the only one.

Of course, like all men and women cut from that beautiful cloth, she would be nonplussed and embarrassed to read such things written about herself, but that’s all part of the deal, isn’t it?  Brokenness and humility are both the things that God uses, and the things that prevent us from getting carried away by our usefulness.

I didn’t ever meet Dianne, but I will miss her and part of me wishes she was still here.  We are poorer without her and there’s a lot of work still to be done, but she’s earned her rest.

One day I’ll thank her face to face, because – one day – we’ll have that first meeting.

James’s Blog: Eight Things that Made me Laugh Out Loud.

James’s Blog:  Eight Things that Made me Laugh Out Loud.

I’ve spent a long time this week working on a blog post about popularity, but I’ve decided that I don’t want to post it. It might have been profound, but it was also quite negative. Being the melancholy sort that I am, I have a tendency to go full Old Testament Prophet sometimes, and it’s not good for me, you or the Kingdom of God if all I do is complain. After all, there’s a reason why we commemorate architects and not demolitions experts. What’s the point of being a follower of Jesus if you can’t lose yourself in laughter every now and then?

So, instead, here is a list of eight things that have made me laugh out loud:

  1. The time I was with my children at a playground and I went down the slide, but my t-shirt got caught at the top of the slide, leaving me dangling halfway down the slide with a ripped t-shirt around my upper chest and neck.

  2. Phil’s Tribute – a dance video that Sam and Ethan prepared for our 2011 end of year formal at Cornerstone Canowindra – Link here.

  3. Walking past Reid and Calvin’s bedroom, and overhearing Reid telling Calvin about a chimpanzee that was found guilty of a crime and sentenced to five years at Wingham Wildlife Park – complete with chimpanzee noises.

  4. The time that my in-laws (Max & Sue) sent some flowers to my parents, and they arrived with a card that read ‘From Mac and Sue’.

  5. That bit in Adventure Time where Ice King says, “Without Gunter, I’ll be all alone. You see, I’m a widower.” and Doctor Princess says, “Oh, I’m sorry. How did your wife die?” and Ice King says, “Ohh…Is that what that means?”

  6. My friend Terry’s story about the time he was using a cubicle in a public toilet, and he heard someone else coming in, and he assumed it was one of his friends who had been waiting outside and he yelled out in a weird squeaky voice, “No, no, go away!” then he heard a voice he didn’t recognise say, “Uhh…sorry mate.” and Terry had to reply “That’s alright.” in the same weird squeaky voice that he’d just used.

  7. Sam, Mark and Darren on the hamster wheel at the playground in Blayney.

  8. The video footage of me on a motorbike, pootling along, suddenly accelerating out of control and crashing into a fence while my wife, who was on the video camera, cackles like a witch in the background.

“Should we not see that the lines of laughter about the eyes are just as much marks of faith as are the lines of seriousness and care?”

Helmut Thielicke

James’s Blog: Two Types of Fire.

James’s Blog:  Two Types of Fire.

God has given me two types of inner fire.

A few months after I became a Christian I was attending a men’s prayer breakfast at my church. During prayer, I experienced what I can only describe as a warm, tingling sensation in my chest. The best effort to put it into words can be found in the Bible, on the lips of one of my older brothers as he and a friend talked about their encounter with the risen Jesus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he explained the Scriptures to us?” It’s happened to me frequently over the years, mostly during prayer. It’s comforting rather than anything else, and I’ve come to associate it with an awareness of the Holy Spirit. It’s just one of those practical, concrete hooks on which I can hang my faith.

The other fire, however, is different. It’s what I might call ‘the squirming inferno’. Again, the best way to describe it can be found in the Bible, this time as the prophet Jeremiah complains. Frustrated by how much trouble God had caused him, he handed in his notice. “Find yourself another prophet,” he says to the divine. But it’s not that simple, and Jeremiah discovers that the message of God will not be smothered. It was, he said, like a fire in his bones. Sometimes (more often than I would like) I find myself restless, and tortured by the feeling that there is some important truth I should be getting out there. The problem is that it’s a time-consuming, difficult and painful process to set it free. Often it’s like realising that its your job to slay a giant dragon, and not even knowing how to begin. Those are the worst times. The only way to keep it quiet is to actually try and do something with it, however feeble my efforts, but it’s never satisfied. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely pay off its debt – the squirming inferno is probably here to stay.

They’re both from God. One is His way of saying, “I love you, and I am always with you”; the other is His way of saying, “But I’m not going to let you get away with being lazy.” I am loved, but I am lazy. I am genuinely thankful for both of these flames, because I need the warmth and the refining.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

Flannery O’Connor

“She had never given much thought to the devil for she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it. For people like herself, for people of gumption, it was a social occasion providing the opportunity to sing; but if she had ever given it much thought, she would have considered the devil the head of it and God the hanger-on. With the coming of these displaced people, she was obliged to give new thought to a good many things.”

The Displaced Person, Flannery O’Connor

I won’t be surprised if many of you are asking, “Who is Flannery O’Connor, and is that his real name?” Well, she was an American author. She died of Lupus in 1964, aged a mere 39, yet is regarded as one of the most influential writers to ever come out of the American South.

Her stories are invariably set in that particular region of the United States, and she was quite willing to tackle sensitive themes in an insensitive time – notably racism.  However, what was quite noticeable to me about her writing was that she clearly had a deep understanding of human nature.  As grotesque as some of her characters are, they are not only believable, but also relatable.  That’s some achievement.

The thing about her that I’ve found particularly inspiring is this: Many of her stories contain explicit Christian themes, written about subtly but powerfully. She wrote about a world that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. She writes about grace and redemption and the fact that, in her own words, “grace changes us and the change is painful.”

I think it’s clear from her writing that she was dissatisfied with the particular brand of fundamentalist Protestantism she encountered in the Deep South, obviously seeing too little of the grace of Christ and too much godless moralism, perhaps epitomised in stories like The River and The Displaced Person (which, whether she meant it or not, is almost a parable of the gospel itself).  That is to be expected, as she was a devout Roman Catholic, which no doubt put her in a minority amongst the people she grew up with.

I’ve been making my way through her Complete Stories, and although the first few are a bit of a slog, everything from Enoch and the Gorilla onwards has been, so far, fantastic.

I suppose that I admire her refusal to be bullied, neither by her heritage nor by that culture of Western fiction which is much happier when God is either non-existent or the villain of the piece. She is, I think, more proof that the world actually finds something irresistible about the gospel, and will happily sit and listen to someone who communicates it with skill.  She is one of those writers whose work both inspires me and makes me feel inadequate.  She was dead by my age, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.