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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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The One True King

Re-reading some of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion this Easter, I have been struck again with the prophetic significance of the sign above the cross, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matt Ch 27 v 37).

Though all the gospels emphasise the kingship of Jesus to some extent, it is more clearly seen in Matthew’s gospel. It is in Matthew that we get the genealogy, which establishes Jesus as the son of David, the son of Abraham. Any rightful king of the Jews had to be descended from David – Herod was not even a full blooded Jew and was considered a usurper – and part of the messianic expectation was a re-establishing of the Davidic line. It is significant that Matthew includes the visit of the Magi, who had received a cosmic revelation of Jesus’ birth. It was their enquiry to Herod (the usurper) about Jesus (the true King), which provoked the massacre of the babies at Bethlehem.

However, it is as Jesus is brought before Pilate that his Kingship is highlighted. When Pilate asks the question of Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus affirms that Pilate is right. Even the soldiers cry out “Hail King of the Jews”. Whilst they did this in mockery, under the hand of God who brought all this to pass, their testimony, though given in loutish ignorance, is actually true.

The final testimony was the placard above the cross. It was usual for the crimes of a crucified felon to be written upon a piece of wood or parchment and nailed on the cross above their head, so that anyone passing by could see the reason for their death. Pilate knew that the Jewish leaders had delivered Jesus to him out of malice and envy, and that there were no genuine offences which he had committed. We do not know what went through Pilate’s mind when it came to the time to declare his judgement to be written on the placard for Jesus, but whatever his reason for doing so, he caused one of the most significant prophetic truths of all time to be written there as a statement that would last for all eternity. “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”.

If Jesus had merely been a carpenter, even a carpenter who was the perfect son of God, his death could not have atoned for the sin of the world.

When Adam sinned, he did not merely sin as a private individual, but as the man whom God had created as the first and foremost – the king – of the human race. Adam was our representative head, who led humanity in sinful rebellion against God. Just as any national leader who declares war, does so on behalf of the nation he represents, Adam led us to side with Satan and oppose God, and there have never been any conscientious objectors who opted out. That is until Jesus.

But if Jesus had merely been a Jewish carpenter, even a perfect, divine Jewish carpenter, he would not have had the authority to declare peace with God and negotiate the appropriate terms of peace.

When Jesus Christ died, he did so as the atoning lamb, but also as the representative head – the king – of God’s people, and as the priest who (in the line of Melchizedek the king/priest of Jerusalem) was able to carry out his own sacrifice with all the legitimate authority of heaven and earth.

The one thing that Jesus could legally be accused of, was that he had accepted the rightful role of King of a fallen, sinful and rebellious people, and as such could legitimately be executed for their fall, their sin and their rebellion.

Oh the wisdom and righteousness of God! The death of Jesus as the second Adam who was both the last of the old order and the first of the new, fully satisfied those in leadership of the Jewish nation, it satisfied the law of Rome, which covered the then known world, and it fully satisfied the righteousness of God.

Now with Jesus as the firstborn from the dead, the king and representative head of God’s new creation, who can possibly lay anything against our charge when we submit to him and present him to God on our behalf?

Hallelujah!

Escape From Reason

You may recognise this as the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer published just over fifty years ago. I remember the vicar at St. John’s Church in Penge, South London, holding the book up in his right hand and recommending it to the congregation. I cannot imagine that many church leaders today would recommend such a book.

That is not because it is a bad book. It is because a substantial section of the church today would probably not only be unable to understand it, but more pertinently, would lack the motivation to work at understanding it.

Schaeffer was one of a batch of writers in the post-war years, who sought to stir the church to weigh and apprehend truth and then communicate it to others. His books were not an easy read. Desiring that his readers would grasp a past and present world-view of thought, he ranged through the history of philosophy and reason in a competent but not always easily understandable way. I did not read the book when the vicar recommended it, but some ten years later, I ventured into Schaeffer, first unsuccessfully, but then gradually with some real appreciation of what he was saying. It was not that I or others in the 1970s, were necessarily more intelligent than the generation today, but whereas we grasped that some good books needed working at, many of today’s readers appear to want all knowledge in pre-digested snippets from Wikipedia or a two-minute thought for the day.

I was a very unsatisfactory student at school. Outside of school I lived in an adult world (my parents ran a pub) where my honest interests centred on card playing and horseracing, and my less honest interests kept me hovering on the borderlands of trouble or possibly prison. I rarely read a book and my perceptive headmaster suggested that I leave his establishment at an early opportunity. God broke into my life in my twenty-first year and one of the first fruits of conversion was that I began to read.

I actually do not know where it came from or how God accomplished it in me, but I began to have a desire to study. I graduated from my teenage reading of Parade and the Daily Sketch to Calvin’s Institutes, the Works of Wesley and Whitefield, C. S. Lewis and the likes of Francis Schaeffer. What I discovered was that hard study was usually beneficial. It was not that I became a mind centred Christian: I was fully immersed in the Charismatic and New Church scene and often used to engage in impromptu street preaching outside St. Paul’s Cathedral or Charing Cross Underground Station. However, in the midst of all the experience and action based stuff, I discovered that God had given me an enquiring mind that wanted answers.

Since those early days, I have struggled to hold these different aspects of Christianity in balance in my own life, and to relate to them appropriately in the lives of others. However, I have been increasingly persuaded that, however many spiritual experiences we may have in meetings, it is not generally possible to grow beyond spiritual babyhood without some measure of applied learning in our bedsits or at our desks. The pathway to maturity is paved with hard work. Whatever else it may have meant, the word ‘disciple’ used by Jesus embodied the concept of a committed learner, and committed learning involves persistent application of all our gifts and abilities. This is equally true of practical and academic disciplines. I learned how to clean toilets when I worked in a care home and that involved as much applied care and attention as when I studied at college.

Fredrick Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury a hundred and twenty years ago said:

The real student knows perfectly well, and it is the thing of great importance in practical life, that nine-tenths of all good work, whatever it may be, is what we usually call drudgery, has a mechanical character about it and requires nothing more than orderliness….. Nine-tenths of all good work is labour in which those who are engaged cannot feel any conceit at all; and the man of genius is distinguished from others mainly by this, that he sees, all through, what this mechanical drudgery is going to lead to”

Many of us today appear offended by the need to undertake anything that might be termed drudgery or, to use its present term, ‘boring’.

I suspect that the reason why many of us have not progressed beyond spiritual babyhood, may not be because of a lack of spiritual experiences, but from a lack of acquiring understanding of those experiences and applying that understanding to action in our lives. For those of us who are gifted to some degree in using our minds, such a course may involve learning from more mature disciples who have written down their acquired wisdom, and who have sometimes done so in a way that will require a real measure of hard work. Even the apostle Peter noted that some of Paul’s writings included that which was hard to understand (2 Peter Ch3 v 16), so it seems unlikely that we can expect to get everything we need served up in a pre-digested form. As helpful as Wikipedia is (and I use it a lot) it is no substitute for coming to grips with some of the great Christian thinkers and writers of past generations.

Choosing a Church

For some years, I have used a particular perfume spray as a deodorant. It is one that is readily available and I usually buy it from a market stall where it costs £3.99 per bottle. Since lockdown began, the stall has disappeared from our local market and as I needed to buy some, I decided to look on line. As I expected, there were several different people selling it, and I opted for a six bottle pack at £19.99 including postage, which was very good value. The interesting thing, is that there was one company offering the spray for over £20 a bottle and a whole range of prices between £5.99 and £19.73 per bottle.

I was not particularly surprised. I have a commercial background in both buying and selling and I am familiar with a principle that is sometimes called ‘creaming’. It has been suggested that in any group of a hundred people, there will always be some, perhaps two or three, who like to pay top price for an item and so some suppliers target that small percentage (they cream off the most profitable). There are also always some (me for one) who like to pay bottom price, and then the bulk of people are not particularly bothered as long as the price is reasonable and the purchase is easy and convenient.

Sometimes, the purchase is made on the basis that price will reflect quality. That is of course sometimes the case, but it is not possible to argue that for a branded item. In fact, the principle is often erroneous in other cases as well. A certain supplier of office equipment worked hard to establish their name as a supplier of top quality items. They used to have one item with their own brand colour and label which they sold at £399.00. They actually bought the item in from an independent manufacturer. The manufacturer whom they purchased it from, also sold the same item under their own brand name. It was produced on the same production line, but finished in a different colour and the asking price was £159.00.

The point I am making, is that some purchases are made, not merely on the basis of the attributes of the item itself, whether that be price, quality or whatever, but on the basis of the characteristics of the person making the purchase.

It is perhaps worth asking the question ‘on what basis do we choose the church situation to get involved in?’ How do we evaluate the quality of the situation itself? Perhaps the most obvious would be to evaluate it on the basis of the bible, but that would require us to do so in a detached way where, as far as possible, we laid aside our own preferences and personality characteristics. It is not wrong to have personal preferences, but it is important to know how much weight we give to them compared to assessing the situation on the basis of the bible and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

In practice, it would appear that many churches have a strong element of tradition which reflects a cultural, ethnic or historical background (how else can we explain the distinctive ways of doing things that have emerged without any apparent biblical precedent?) I am not suggesting that it would be possible to do so, but it is worth trying to imagine what it would be like if we all just went to the nearest church. As a start that would probably eliminate any church existing on the basis of ethnicity alone. In the town where I live, in addition to the many predominantly white English churches, there are those which are predominantly Syrian, Kenyan, Ghanaian, Romanian, Chinese, Zimbabwean, Nigerian, West Indian, Polish etc. etc.

The question that arises – an imaginary question of course – is which one would Jesus go to? Would he choose just one and if so, on what basis would he make the decision? Perhaps more pertinently, would he be welcome if he turned up, and would he understand what was going on?

I suspect that when I get to heaven, it will not be any great deal as to whether I chose to pay £20 per bottle or £20 for half a dozen bottles of my favourite deodorant perfume; I think such choices will have little eternal effect. However, it may well be that I will be asked to justify why I chose to affiliate myself with a particular group – especially if I had little or no contact with other groups – and even more so if those in the group were all just like me.

How Do You Eat Your Soup?

Following the previous blog, I would like to look at one of Aesop’s fables that I came across.

Aesop relates the story that once upon a time the Fox invited the Stork to dinner and put before her some soup in a very shallow dish. The Fox could easily lap it up, but he Stork could only wet the end of her long bill in it, and left the meal as hungry as when she began. “I’m sorry that the soup is not to your liking”, said the Fox. “Pray do not apologise”, said the Stork. “I hope you will come and dine with me soon and I will show you what a real feast is.”

When the Fox went to dinner at the Stork’s house, she also served some soup, but in a very long necked jar with a narrow mouth. All the Fox could manage to do was lick the outside of it. So he too left a shared meal hungry and dissatisfied.

We can easily recognise Aesop’s point that both the Fox and the Stork were very bad mannered to offer someone hospitality in a way in which they were unable to receive it. In the story it appears they both acted this way on purpose, but it would be almost as bad mannered to act in such a way through sheer ignorance or thoughtlessness. To invite someone to share a meal and then to serve it in a manner to which we are accustomed, but without taking any account of how they normally eat, demonstrates that we have little regard for the other person and it makes the sharing of food a meaningless gesture.

I was recently reckoning up how many different churches I had visited. Certainly well over a hundred, and between them representing a few dozen different denominations. It has seemed to me that the majority appeared to serve up spiritual food according to their own cultural or denominational background. There is probably not much wrong with that – soup is soup whether it comes in a shallow plate or a long necked jar, and if either suits you, then fine. However, I have noticed that problems appear to arise when churches come together and serve spiritual food without taking account of each other’s normal eating habits. It can be as equally unsatisfying to be given a service book without help, explanation or page numbers, as it is to have to stand by, while others sing songs off by heart, especially if they are in an unfamiliar foreign language.

There have been rare occasions when folk from differing church traditions have come together and seem to have had a genuine desire to learn from each other and to serve each other, but they have been the exception rather than the rule.

I was once asked whether I had held a particular view about some churches out of arrogance or ignorance. It was actually a valid and perceptive question. After some reflection, I had to give the honest answer, “both”. I had allowed my limited, narrow experience to shape my thinking about others who were different from me. I do not believe that most Christians are deliberately bad mannered, but it does seem to me that an awful lot of us fall into the trap of being arrogant or ignorant, when it comes to sharing together at God’s table.

This does not mean that any and every way of doing things must inevitably be acceptable. Worship and the things we do in church can be wrong, sometimes very wrong. The Israelites were constantly admonished to flee from false idols because they picked up bad habits from those around them. The task we face is to discern between what is wrong (and avoid or admonish such) and what is merely a matter of taste, style or habit. Even if it is only a matter of style, it does not mean that we should just ignore it on the one hand or embrace it on the other, but that we should seek to understand it so that we can act appropriately in a spirit true fellowship.

I trust that I am not so naïve as to think that the pathway of understanding others is either comfortable or easy, but I do think it necessary. My wife and I have been married for nearly forty-eight years and we still do not always understand each other. But apart from the benefits which accrue from working at it, we have no option because we agreed to do so those forty-eight years ago. If we are all in covenant relationship with Jesus Christ and hence part of the same body, then I fail to see how we can treat the pathway of understanding different parts of the body as an optional extra.

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