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.

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.

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