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: Soul Jar.

James’s Blog:  Soul Jar.

The soul is like a jar.  It’s probably made of clay.  God seems to have a thing for clay.

Sometimes you go to someone’s soul jar and it’s empty.  You look at the person, and you see the bitterness etched on his face and you roll your eyes.  Words spring to mind: small-minded, tiny-hearted, empty soul.  No wonder, you think, that this soul jar is empty.  He is mean, wicked, horrible and anything poured into that jar would turn into vinegar the moment that it splashed against the sides.

But it doesn’t work like that.  The jar is not empty because of bitterness, but rather there is bitterness because the jar is empty.

Let me explain.

I watch a child dancing with breathless joy in the morning, while the world around me shouts “Fire and Fury!” and I think, She doesn’t understand and that’s why she dances.  But then God taps me on the shoulder and says, “No, James, she does understand, and that’s why she dances.  You may have lost your way for a moment.”

The jar starts full, but a swift kick here and a rough push there and a crack will show, and if we don’t attend to it then the soul starts to leak out.  If we don’t watch those chips and fractures then we’ll dry out.  It might take years, but it’ll happen.

“And it’s not just your jar, James,” says God.  “You know what Fred Craddock says the rule for all big families is, don’t you?”

“Yes, God,” I reply.  “The older ones help the younger ones.”

“Good.  Now fix your jar, and I can always top it up for you.  And when you see someone else in danger of leaking out all over the place, you know what to do, don’t you?”

“Yes, God,” I say.  “The older ones help the younger ones.”

How’s your jar?

How about the jars to your left and right?

Don’t just watch the treasure leak out.

James’s Blog: Natural Words and Spiritual Words.

James’s Blog:  Natural Words and Spiritual Words.

Sometimes I’ll talk to someone about how things are going, and they’ll say something like:

“When she was out walking the dog, Sheila noticed that the family a couple of doors down was selling their car. So, we bought it for a good price. It turned out to be really convenient.” Read more

James’s Blog: Blessed are the Cynics, for they shall see God.

James’s Blog:  Blessed are the Cynics, for they shall see God.

As a fully-paid up member of Generation X, my teenage years were full of angst and world-weariness. Even at my tender age, I was already wise to all the tricks of The Man and as discerning as any middle-class white kid from south Northamptonshire can be. When I became a Christian this cynicism transitioned quite nicely into my new faith, as it seemed to me that there were no shortage of fruitcakes and nutters in church leadership. Some of them shouldn’t even have been let near heavy machinery, let alone given serious pastoral responsibility. Oh yes, I knew what was what. No-one would get one over me. My cynicism was so finely tuned that it was practically prophetic. I would watch my brothers and sisters work themselves up into a frenzy over the latest spiritual manifestation or teaching and I would remain calm, level-headed and quite unmoved. Unfortunately cynicism can be quite indiscriminate at times, and I would still be unmoved even when it was God trying to do the moving. Thankfully I manage my cynicism much more responsibly these days.  Some days it even borders on discernment.

At the end of the first chapter of John’s gospel we find Philip excitedly relating to his brother that he’s just met the Messiah, and Nathanael’s response is so world-weary and sarcastic that I’m forced to conclude that he was actually British.

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”

It’s a classic response. Humourous and dismissive without actually addressing the issue. I recognise a fellow cynic when I see one.

The thing is, very rarely are people born cynical. Most of us spring forth into this world, wide-eyed and excited, hoping against hope for good things to come our way. But they don’t, and cynicism is just one of many defence mechanisms that we evolve in order to protect ourselves. The secret is this, that many cynics are just disappointed idealists. We once believed, but were let down, and to avoid hurt we have chosen to never believe again. Thus another cynic is born.

In the years leading up to Jesus’ birth there were Messiahs cropping up on a semi-regular basis. It was typical of the Israelites, chaffing under the unjust Roman yoke. Their freedom in the land was so bound up in their identity as God’s chosen people that it should be no surprise that there were plenty of people willing to jump on whatever revolutionary bandwagon came along. Nathanael would, no doubt, have known about the one called Athronges. He claimed to be the Messiah and, get this, he was a shepherd. Many Jews would have just loved that Davidic parallel. The Romans took a dim view of such behaviour and, without fail, every Messianic pretender (Athronges included) would have ended up dead or imprisoned, along with his followers.

“Not another Messiah! Philip, why do you have to be so gullible? You’re always falling for things like this…”

But if a cynic is just a disappointed idealist then maybe it’s not Philip who’s the gullible one? Maybe Nathanael’s harsh reply is just his wounded heart talking? Maybe he once believed? Maybe it was once him, rushing into the desert after Simon, or Athronges, or some other deluded trickster, hoping that it would lead to the freedom that a true Israelite desired. Well, never again! Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. But Philip is no fool himself. He knows that there’s no point arguing or trying to persuade his brother. He gives the only reply that will work on a cynic:

“Come and see for yourself.”

And Jesus sees him approaching. He appraises the young man. He smiles.

“Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

What a strange thing to say of a cynic. What is false if not Nathanael’s bitter, dismissive reply to his brother? But maybe it’s true. Maybe behind the sarcasm Jesus sees the heart of a optimist; one who dreams of what might be. A true believer.

“How do you know me?” Nathanael says, suspicion making him revert to type.

“I saw you while you were still under the fig-tree before Philip called you.”

I don’t see it myself, but there’s obviously something in this phrase. Some secret that only God and Nathanael share. Whatever it is, it pushes all of Nathanael’s buttons. He drops everything and gives such an overblown response that it would be funny if it weren’t so perfect.

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

From nought to sixty in under a second. It’s almost as if he’s been waiting for this moment his whole life. The cynicism, it seems, was just a mask to keep false prophets from the door while he was waiting for the real thing to come along. And here he is, coming from a place from where nothing good comes, and Nathanael is his, mind and soul. A cynic may no longer believe, but he still wants to.

“Jesus, I’m your man. For the rest of my life, I’m your man.”

Here’s the thing. While a cynic will keep everything and everyone at arms length, if you can somehow break through his defences and give him a taste of the real thing he will flip-flop quicker than a politician. “Come and see for yourself.”

Watch out for those cynics. They are not far from the Kingdom of God. A little taste of the real thing, and before you know it you’ve got a true believer whose passion will burn everyone and everything that they come into contact with.

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