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God's not boring

Hi, welcome to the website for Joe Story and the Unboring Book Company.

All the material on this site, which ranges from serious theology to the slightly humorous, aims to reflect a view of life and Christianity which acknowledges Jesus as Lord and Christ. We will try to be practical, helpful and easy to understand. Because we are still writing several more books and need the time to do that, we will not be taking comments and replying to them at this stage. However, if you do want to contact us please use the form provided. All material on this site that has been written by Joe Story, can be copied or quoted for any honourable, not for profit purpose with an appropriate acknowledgement. All books can be read free on line, purchased from your local (UK) Christian bookshop, or ordered online from this site. Contact us for bulk or overseas enquiries.

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True or false?

I worked in a bookshop for many years and generally when a customer had bought a book I offered them a paper bag to put it in. Quite a number used to decline the offer with a comment such as ‘No thanks – let’s save the rainforest.’

Now I have a background in the paper industry and I was involved in buying and selling woodpulp for several years. I also worked for a time in a paper mill, which manufactured paper both from virgin pulp and recycled materials. Although I rarely did so, I could have explained to a customer in some detail that the chances of their paper bag having come from wood originating in a rain forest was essentially nil. (Not to mention the fact that the book they were buying probably contained a couple of hundred times as much woodpulp as their bag did.)

By far the majority of paper made in the UK uses raw material from sustainable, managed forests where the trees are harvested in a cycle, in much the same way that we would plant, grow and harvest wheat or barley. The only real difference is that the cycle takes place over a longer period.

What I have learned though, is that many people are much more comfortable holding onto something false but which feels good – we are saving the rainforest by not using a paper bag – than they are taking time to find out the actual facts of a matter.

I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but this happens in church life as well. For instance it is very common today for people to refer to singing and playing musical instruments as ‘worship’ in spite of the fact that there is only one place in the whole of the bible where music and worship are even mentioned in the same verse. Even a cursory bible study on worship will quickly show that its primary meaning relates to sacrificial service to and honour of God – not to singing about it. When I have mentioned something along these lines, the response rarely includes a willingness to consider facts, but nearly always centres on the need for me to accept popular thinking (even if it is inaccurate) and not to upset anyone by saying something controversial.

It is understandable that the world increasingly embraces truth on the basis of what an individual determines it to be, rather than on any external evidence. This is the inevitable outcome of existentialism which has been increasingly filtering down into our corporate consciousness, especially over the last ninety years or so. However, the church should be actively resisting conformity to the world. We have a responsibility to understand truth as it is presented in the bible and not to re-define it on the basis of what seems popular or appropriate to us.

When Jesus was on earth, he cut right across many of the accepted teachings of the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Perhaps we should consider which of our church teachings he would cut across if he were with us today.

Three churches

In conversation with some friends in London recently I heard of three local churches that appear in real danger of serious decline. Located within a few hundred yards of each other, one has a superb building complex but only around 15 elderly people in the congregation. They share a minister with one of the other churches (of the same denomination) which has an adequate building and a reasonable size congregation but without a lot happening. The third church (belonging to another, but very similar denomination) has a fairly strong ministry team, quite a lot happening, but a building that is not very suitable. A pooling of resources could result in a very good building, a fairly large congregation (easily accommodated), a broad ministry team and, from the sale of the other two buildings, enough money to finance outreach and ministry for years to come. Of course we know it won’t happen, but why not?

Any business that had three branches which functioned on a similar basis to the three churches would of course go bankrupt very quickly. Based no doubt on a desire for profit the business would almost certainly consolidate its assets, subordinating the discomforts of change to the overriding aim of making money.

Churches are not motivated by profit and neither should they be, but surely we should ask the question as to what might actually be the motivation that would enable them to subordinate the discomforts of change to work for the greater good of God’s kingdom. That is of course assuming that we do believe that it is for the good of the kingdom to utilise resources in the best possible way, rather than being plainly inefficient and in danger of death.

The strange thing is, that if each of us were to be asked whether we put the kingdom as our priority, we would probably say yes, whilst however maintaining practices that to an outside observer, may appear to plainly contradict that.

An exercise that might be provocatively helpful to us would be to actually put down on paper the benefits that accrue to the kingdom of God by remaining separate compared to the benefits of working together. It is the sort of things that businesses do, but I suppose that some of us would consider that too worldly.

Do you remember?

I once spent a summer working in a restaurant for £2.50 a week. It was a very long time ago when I was fourteen, but even then it was not much money. The owner of the restaurant was from Cyprus but he did not serve Greek food – very English fish and chips and real solid puddings. He allowed me to eat as much as I liked, so my low wage was off-set by triple helpings of steamed syrup suet sponge with custard and ice cream.

I am not aware that the time there had any impact on my life, so why I remember that and forget so many other things is a mystery.

Memory is a selective thing, not least in the matter of recalling conversations between husband and wife. I can remember a set of facts quite differently to the way my wife, Catherine, remembers them. It is probable that one of us is right, but which one of us? Ah! – That is another mystery.

There are a very few individuals with exceptionally good memories, but for most of us, we need some method to help us – whether on screen, paper or knots in handkerchiefs. That is one of the reasons why we need to keep coming back to our bibles. Most of us easily forget what it says, and we end up relying on someone else to tell us. The problem is that they may have forgotten just as easily as we have. Now, I do believe in the need for leaders such as pastors and teachers in the Church, but not as substitutes for what we should be checking out ourselves.

God has promised that He will teach us through the Holy Spirit writing things on our minds and hearts. One of the most effective ways He does this is by enabling us to understand the bible when we read it. It is very helpful to have good leaders in the Church, but their main responsibility is to teach us how to learn directly from God rather than them acting as a go between. A good teacher will teach what the Holy Spirit is already saying, so that our response will be, ‘that’s just what I have seen’. In this way, it will be a confirmation of what we are already getting for ourselves. This does of course put the responsibility on us to make sure that we are in right relationship with God and continually drawing on the life of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. If all of us in Church do this and share what God is showing us, we are more likely to grow both individually and as a group.

One of the worst things that can happen, is for a leader to convince us that we are not able to receive from God ourselves, and that what we need to do is just listen to them, support them and do what they say. In her book ‘The Liberty of Obedience’ Elisabeth Elliot states that “Decisions must be made in the integrity of one’s own heart before God – with an unselfish attention to our brother’s good and the glory of God.” When we have to respond to the questions God puts to us at the judgement, it will be insufficient to say ‘I never really came to grips with what you said Lord, but this leader said this, or the other leader said that and I thought it best to just follow them and not to try and understand for myself.’

You may be surprised how many problems happen to churches because a leader spends so much time trying to build a good church, that he or she goes astray in their own life. Some of the other people will probably pick that up, but if they are used to simply playing follow my leader, then the whole church can break up, dry up or go off the rails. But we do have a responsibility to remember to the best of our ability, and most of us will only be able to do it well if we both rely on the Holy Spirit and keep going back to the bible.

Disciples or Dilettantes

It is not particularly easy to explain what a dilettante is. The Oxford dictionary includes the definition: A person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.

A couple of hundred years ago it was generally applied to gentlemen and ladies of financial means who pursued an interest in something, usually enthusiastically, but without the need or desire to have a commitment to it. Over the years, it has mainly fallen into disuse, but when it is applied to someone, it tends to highlight an apparently enthusiastic involvement, which lacks any real depth.

When Jesus began His ministry of healing, exorcism and teaching, large crowds followed Him wherever He went. Their enthusiasm and interest could not be doubted. They were attracted both by the man and what He said and did, and they took delight (the true root meaning of a dilettante) in all the spectacular and miraculous events that were happening. However, as Jesus unpacked the truth of who He was and what would be required of anyone who decided to stick with Him, many of the crowds melted away.

It seemed that there were two aspects of Jesus’ teaching that made Him a far less attractive proposition to the once eager crowds. The first was His insistence that His hearers could only obtain life by eating and drinking his flesh and blood: superficially, an understandably repellent concept, but one which in reality focussed on union with Him as the only source of spiritual life. The second was His equally insistent demand, that anyone who wanted to be his disciple, must first be prepared to lay down and discard their own life.

A dilettante may get very enthusiastic about all that Jesus has done and continues to do, but they will draw back from any real commitment to truth and discipleship.

Many churches have at least some aspect of their activities focussed on an appeal to basic human nature. Some churches actually gear up a substantial amount of what they do in order to attract folk on that basis. The style of music, family events, messy church, aesthetically pleasing ceremonies or whatever, seemingly put together to appeal to the natural man or woman. If they are successful in drawing people in, and they often are, generally they will end up with dilettantes rather than disciples.

There is little wrong with seeking to be pleasing on a natural level. The problem comes when that is the focus of the appeal. Often, such a church will end up being mono-cultural with like coming together with like, gathering those with common interests. However, if a church is founded on sacrificial union with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection, it will embrace a range of styles and activities that will reflect the variety of people drawn together; but the drawing will not be based on any one or more of those styles and activities, but on Jesus Himself.

At heart, a dilettante will be a fair weather follower, primarily concerned with what they can receive rather than with what they can give. A disciple however will want to serve their master come what may.

St. Ignatius of Loyola summed up the nature of discipleship when he said:

Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to ask for any reward except to know that I am doing your will.”

If we struggle to say an amen to that, perhaps we should consider whether we are mere dilettantes rather than disciples.

My Favourite Magazine

I have just been browsing in the latest edition of Plough. It is only published quarterly, which means that I have enough space between issues to forget just how good it is. Each edition therefore tends to have an element of surprise when I re-discover its excellence. Without question, it is the best magazine I know of.

Though I rate it very highly, I sometimes disagree with substantial parts of it, or if not actually disagreeing, simply fail to agree through lack of knowledge and awareness of the subject matter. In addition, much of the content is beyond my experience and outside my general areas of interest.

So what is it that draws me to it as the one magazine that I generally read from cover to cover? Its content is Christian, at least in the main – though perhaps sometimes only vaguely so – and it does not appear to be either evangelical nor charismatic. It covers an extraordinary range of subjects – even in a themed issue. Where else would you find an interview with a Coptic Archbishop, an article on welding and another on cryptocurrency, nestling next to a reflection on being a mercenary and a memorial of Jean Vanier working lovingly with severely disabled people? Reflecting on the reasons why I like this magazine, I find myself coming back to one word. Integrity. As I understand it, integrity means firstly that it has the quality of being honest, and secondarily that it has strong moral principles. There is invariably a total absence of hype, that extravagance of self-promotion which characterises so many publications. Also, there are no adverts. It only continues to exist because those who read it believe it worthwhile supporting, or, more pertinently, because those who publish it believe it worthwhile investing their time and money to do so.

In the recent issues of Plough there is a quote from C.S. Lewis’s school tutor advising him only to say what he meant – and nothing more or less. That finds a strong echo in my own heart – something I long for and endeavour to do, though realising it is something I often fail to achieve. However, Plough does manage to achieve this on a surprisingly consistent basis, and that may be the thing that contributes most to its integrity and to its consequent attraction.

My experience and understanding of Christianity is at variance with much that I read in the magazine, but I cannot help drinking in the complete lack of hypocrisy, which permeates its pages. Whatever else we know about Jesus, surely no one can question His love of honesty and openness, and it is that, rather than what I would consider doctrinal correctness, which I find so stimulating about this publication.

It is published from conviction and not for profit, by the Bruderhof, a group of Christians living and working together in full community. If you want to check it out for yourselves, visit www.plough.com

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