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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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Revisiting the Peter Principle

I do not generally take a great deal of interest in the news, but I have been trying to follow some of the reports about the Great Post Office Scandal. It is surely one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in recent history.

I am sure that the first reaction of many of us is to ask, “How on earth could it happen?” However, the reality of the matter is that such things are continually happening; just not on the same scale.

I encountered something similar recently when trying to sort out a safeguarding issue. In seeking to deal with a particular matter, I met with a refusal by those in authority to consider facts or to evaluate evidence. They also declined to talk to people involved. Apparently, there was a system in place. The system had been followed, a conclusion reached, and that was that. There could not be any possibility that the conclusion was wrong as, or so it seemed, the system was infallible. I was told that questioning the system displayed an unwillingness to strive for safeguarding excellence. I therefore concluded that safeguarding excellence was deemed to mean following the system without question.

Someone promoting such an attitude used to be called a ‘jobsworth’, which can be interpreted as ‘an official who upholds rules even at the expense of humanity or common sense’. In the earlier uses of ‘jobsworth’, it tended to be given to people who had a minor area of authority they rigorously enforced. Unfortunately, it seems to be increasingly true of people who have higher levels of authority as well. At times such as these I find myself revisiting “The Peter Principle”, an excellent book I have read several times.

Written over 50 years ago, it deals with the timeless principle that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. Thus a good carpenter may be promoted to foreman. If he is an incompetent foreman he is not demoted but remains a foreman. If he is a good foreman he may be promoted to being a team leader. If he is an incompetent team leader he is not demoted but remains in that job. If he is a good team leader he may be considered for a management position…..and so it goes on. This means that many, possibly most people are functioning at one level above their competence. I find the book strangely reassuring that my observations of blatant incompetence in the higher levels of most organisations may have some foundation.

A person promoted beyond their competence will be tempted to take refuge in the systems that support their job. Instead of exercising their authority with wisdom and understanding, they move to the default position of appealing to a system. This eases the uncomfortable burden of responsibility they have accepted. Even an incompetent person can tick the right boxes if they know what is expected.

Of course, there are some glorious exceptions of people at the top who have outstanding ability, but very often, they seem to be those who have actually built the organisation they head up. In such situations, incompetent leadership may not fully emerge until a generation or two after they have gone.

Small children may need some systems in place and even those of us who are older may enjoy the luxury of a minor quirk or two. When eating my dinner, I tend to separate the component parts and eat them one at a time. I have a friend who mixes everything up together in one big heap. It is permissible to do such things, but generally inappropriate to impose them on others. The real problem comes when we make the system or method, the absolute judge that overrules any question or observation from another perspective.

What happened in the Post Office Scandal, was that the management refused to allow the possibility that their computer system could be wrong. Once they had taken that position, it became necessary to discount any evidence to the contrary. In his book “Making Decisions”, the statistician Dennis Lindley makes the point that, unless dealing with a logical or mathematical conclusion such as 2 + 2 = 4, any assertion of probability should allow for a possibility, however remote or unlikely, that the probability may be wrong.

Such a position invites questions and challenges, and questions and challenges, even though sometimes irksome and annoying, are generally helpful. They either expose a weakness, which can then be addressed and put right, or they clarify and strengthen the original position. Either way that is a win win situation. Just sticking to the system come what may, opens up the possibility of everyone losing.

Learning From the World

I do take very seriously Paul’s injunction to the Roman Church that they “should not be conformed to the world” (Ch 12 v 2). However, I do not believe that he means that we cannot learn anything by observing how the world carries out some functions. Jesus drew many parallels between secular behaviour and spiritual principles, especially in respect of farmers and shepherds. Paul likened believers to athletes and encouraged them to run as if they were running for a prize (1 Cor Ch 9 v 24).

For those of us who have come from totally secular backgrounds, some biblical images have little immediate meaning. In the world I came from, anything resembling deacons and bishops was completely outside my experience. Now I do believe in study and applying myself to learning what the bible means by such terms, but I would have found it much easier if someone had compared the church to the catering industry, and explained that the Greek word for deacon was commonly used of a barman or wine waiter.

One of the biblical words that appears to have lost all meaning in the church is ‘disciple’. A common word in Jesus’ day, disciple would have been readily understood as a pupil of a teacher, but with the added element of learning on the job. The same sort of principle that would have undergirded apprenticeships where someone signed up with a master craftsman in order to learn the trade.

Jesus never told the apostles or any of his followers to make ‘churchgoers’ or to ‘get people saved’. He explicitly told them to make disciples (Mat Ch 28 v 19). It seems to me therefore, that once we have become Christians through turning away from self to God, and have sealed that with baptism in water and Holy Spirit, our next step should be to become lifelong learners or apprentices. In other words – disciples. Becoming an apprentice has never been something for the fainthearted to undertake. It is generally badly paid, and involves hard work – some of which is probably menial, repetitious and boring. Even with a comparatively exciting career, such as a professional footballer, the apprenticeship may involve an undreamed of commitment to training in order to become a master of the game. Of course, many people will play football simply for the fun of it and in such cases, competence is an optional extra.

A question we might ask; is what model would Jesus use today to convey the nature of the relationship he wants with his followers? The apostles would have known that there was no such thing as a part-time disciple. Of course, even then there were adherents to religions who did not take it seriously and who hovered on the fringes of one movement or another. But Jesus did not die to gain part-time adherents who fitted in their commitment to him around more important areas of their lives. Jesus wanted disciples and he made it plain that discipleship would cost everything.

One of the problems we have today, is that sometimes there is no expectation that there will be any measurable growth in the people who belong to a church. Leaders are expected to keep the thing ticking over, but not to engage in a meaningful way with people in order to see them change and come into ministry themselves. It is accepted that the leaders must be committed, but allowed that everyone else is only committed to the level they choose, and that may be little more than a weekly attendance and a few pounds in the collection pot. I have been considering what possible names we could give to church leaders that would encourage a different understanding of their relationship with the church.

Looking around at the world, the two terms that would seem most appropriate to import into spiritual church life, are coach and trainer. Both these roles incorporate the concept of enabling and promoting growth in the person or persons being coached or trained. No football team would engage a coach without the expectation that there would be measurable growth and improvement in both individuals and the team as a whole. No one would join a team with a coach unless they were prepared to knuckle down to some exercises and practice that would result in change.

In the early churches, especially those within Jewish or Greek cultures, people would have understood the difference between someone who believed certain facts about Jesus and someone who made the decision to become a disciple of Jesus.

I realise that many churches today make the choice not to present Christianity as discipleship. The ‘welcome one and all’ philosophy which some churches pursue, often creates an attractive environment where people can belong before they believe (and sometimes never believe). It is often a successful method of seeing numerical growth, but not of making disciples. Whilst Jesus drew large crowds, he constantly laid down the terms of discipleship and he never tried to hang on to people who were not prepared to accept those terms.

In some countries, persecution of Christians forces people to become disciples or to turn their backs on their faith. I sometimes wonder whether it is the grace or the judgement of God that holds back persecution in our country. Surely, half-heartedness is a much greater threat to the kingdom than persecution.

Though I do think it could be good to recognise and promote a coaching ministry within the church, a change of name or title alone will do little. But we do need to recover not merely the concept of discipleship, but the practice of it. Can we really be New Covenant followers of Jesus if we do not have an expectation that he will be constantly working on us to change us?

It might be interesting to consider what could happen if a church were to employ a full-time coach instead of a pastor.

Breaking Bread – Ten Things to Think About

Along with many others, my friends and I are beginning to meet again in person as lockdown eases. We have been meeting on line, and whilst that has enabled us to continue with many things such as looking at scriptures and sharing testimonies, we have been unable to do some things such as breaking bread together.

I have been wrestling with the whole concept of breaking bread/communion/eucharist for a number of years, as none of the many ways that I have shared in this with others have appeared to me to be what Jesus wanted his disciples to do, or what the early church seemed to have carried out.

The problem is accentuated, because this apparently simple procedure can be done, and indeed is done, in a variety of ways with a variety of meanings. According to various church traditions, there are differences in many areas. I certainly do not have any pat answers, but I do have some questions.

1. Frequency? Some churches, especially those with a more liturgical position, may have communion on a daily basis. Those who do not make it a daily practice usually do so once a week or once a month. Some churches, especially those in the Presbyterian wing of the church, may only celebrate 1, 3, 4 or 6 times a year. Is there any clear biblical basis which undergirds any of these patterns?

2. Who may share in the communion? The Eastern Orthodox Church give communion to newly baptized infants but not to any person who does not belong to the church. Roman Catholics and Anglicans will allow any person to partake who has been baptized and confirmed in the denomination. Most Free Churches restrict communion to adults, but do not necessarily require them to have been baptized. Some make a point that ‘those who love the Lord’ may come and others make no distinction at all. Some churches have ‘closed’ communion for members only on some occasions and ‘open’ communion for anyone on others.

3. What food and drink should be used? Anglicans and Roman Catholics generally use separate wafers made individually (ie. Not from a loaf) and alcoholic red wine. In some high churches, water is added to the wine, usually cold water, but hot in some Orthodox churches. Methodists will not use wine but red grape juice. Some churches insist on matzos or unleavened bread (ie. With no yeast in it), whilst others use pre-cut cubes of a cut white loaf. Some churches endeavour to keep the symbolism of a loaf and so break a loaf in pieces, however, some of the churches which insist on a loaf will have it with Ribena or some form of blackcurrant juice.

4. How should the food and drink be distributed? Whilst having individual separated wafers, most liturgical churches will use one cup out of which everyone comes forward to drink. Baptists tend to do it the other way around. They often use a loaf which is pre-cut, then distributed and eaten when received, whilst then using individual cups, which are passed around and everyone waits so they can all drink together. The possible combinations of how it should be done are many and varied. I have seen bread and wine presented on fine silver, and also pint plastic cups of Ribena passed round with chunks from a fresh loaf on a plastic plate.

5. Does anything happen to the bread and wine that is used? Both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. However whilst the Catholics describe the change as transubstantiation, many (most?) Orthodox stop short of using the term and simply say that it is a mystery. Some of the reformers taught that Christ’s body and blood is mediated with the bread and wine so that anyone who receives by faith, does partake of Christ. Other reformers, and most Free Churches today, do not believe that any change takes place and that the bread and wine are aids to faith not vehicles of faith.

6. Does anything happen to the people who take bread and wine? Again the main difference is between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches and the Free Churches. If Christ is actually given and received, that must make a difference and communion is therefore compulsory for a Christian. If all that a person receives is bread and wine, then any difference that may occur is as a result of faith not the elements themselves. However, if nothing happens, what does Paul mean about people becoming sick because they do not participate properly?

7. How is communion an act of remembrance? The Jewish Passover meal was an occasion when God’s deliverance of his people was specifically remembered. It happened in the context of a meal and during the meal questions were raised and explanations given. Although it only happened once a year, the remembrance element was central and so people were actually reminded of what God had done. Though most Churches celebrate communion much more frequently than once a year, it is more often done as a ritual rather than something which provokes and answers questions. Consequently, those partaking will often have less understanding from their frequent participation, than the Jews did from their infrequent participation.

8. What does it mean to remember until he come? Passover certainly incorporated an act of remembrance, but it also looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus was and is the Messiah who came, but having returned to the Father, he has promised to come again. As far as I am aware, very few churches of any type have any real focus on the second coming as part of communion. Should we rediscover such a focus?

9. What is the correct name and context for communion? Communion indicates a sharing together, Eucharist emphasises a giving of thanks and breaking bread was a common term for sharing a meal together. Usually, Eastern meals were, and in many cases still are, based around bread as the most common and basic food. Bread was life and to share bread was to share life. Jesus’ command to ‘do this’ was in the context of a meal. A question we need to ask is ‘Should his command be carried out as part of a meal, as an entirely separate ritual, or as something slipped into or tagged onto a church service?’

10. How does communion reflect the unity of the one body of Christ when it is done with so many variations, and often with the specific exclusion of others?

I am wrestling through many of these issues myself at the moment, but have found a strange reluctance amongst other Christians to talk about it or to reconsider their own particular way of doing things. I would be interested and open to comments from others on this.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Though the fig tree may not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines;
Though the labour of the olive may fail,
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
And there be no herd in the stalls –
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

Habakkuk Ch 3 v 17 – 18

This short paean of affirming faith in God in the face of seeming evidence to the contrary, cuts to the heart of the matter as to how we respond to God in the face of judgement.

The land and the people of Judah were coming under judgement. The instrument of judgement was the Chaldean army, which was spreading out from Babylonia like lava spewing out from a volcano. Nothing could stop them, and such was their unstoppable power, that nations and cultures in their path were liable to be extinguished for ever. Through the prophet Habakkuk, God unequivocally confirms what he is doing.

For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans,
a bitter and hasty nation
which marches through the breadth of the earth,
to possess dwelling places that are not theirs.
They are terrible and dreadful;
their judgment and their dignity proceed from themselves.
Their horses also are swifter than leopards,
and more fierce than evening wolves.
Their chargers charge ahead;
their cavalry comes from afar;
they fly as the eagle that hastens to eat.
They all come for violence;
Their faces are set like the east wind.
They gather captives like sand.
They scoff at kings,
and princes are scorned by them.
They deride every stronghold,
for they heap up earthen mounds and seize it.”

Habakkuk Ch 1 v 6 -10

In the light of such judgement, how is Habakkuk able to say that, though everything fails, yet he will rejoice in the Lord? After declaring God’s judgement, Habakkuk also declares God’s remedy “The just shall live by his faith”(Ch 2 v 4)

Whatever the human situation, there is only ever one remedy; look expectantly to the Lord to fulfil his ultimate promises. The ‘just’ or righteous, are only ever just because they do not trust in themselves, but in the Word of God. Human failure is always the result of trusting in human ability.

As we listen to the news, we cannot but be struck by the continued emphasis of politicians and national leaders that they have things under their control and that they will sort out whatever situation or disaster prevails. All they need is a bit more time, a bit more money or a bit more cooperation and confidence from the rest of us. If they are people of good intention then they are deceived, if they are people of wrong intentions, then they are liars. In either case, our responsibility is to disbelieve them and to fix our hopes upon God.

Judgement is not the first reaction of an implacable deity, but the final response of a longsuffering merciful God whose people have refused to hear and receive the words that would have led to life. The scriptures say that judgement begins first at the house of God (1 Peter Ch 4 v17). If we acknowledge that the breakdown of society happening on a worldwide scale is indeed judgement, then we are in a better place than any to repent, get right with God and to put our own house in order. If we harden our hearts and imitate the worldly attitude that we have the capability to sort out whatever is needful, then we put ourselves in the frontline for judgement.

Habakkuk did not end his prophecy with words of confidence because he had any expectation that the Jewish nation would be able to overcome the Chaldean hordes: he knew that Judah would be defeated. However, he also knew that God had promised future deliverance and rather than trusting in present resources, he firmly fixed his eyes on the dawning of God’s approaching Messianic Kingdom.

When Paul was returning from one of his missionary journeys, he revisited churches on the way “Strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’” (Acts Ch 14 v 22). Paul’s intention was to strengthen Christians by emphasising the hardships they would face. Too many church leaders today are weakening Christians, by presenting a journey lined with the warm fuzzy feelings of aspiration rather than the hard facts of faith.

I have been meditating over the past few days on Martin Luther’s hymn “A mighty fortress is our God”. The language is a bit dated and obscure (it was written nearly 500 years ago), but the words resound with resolute faith in the face of adversity. Luther probably wrote this hymn in 1527 -29, at the time when parts of Europe were experiencing another outbreak of plague. The city of Florence reputedly lost a fifth of its population at that time. Pandemics, such as the present one with Covid 19, have been part of virtually all periods of human history; such periods are always opportunities to discover new depths of faith in God. May God give us the grace to respond and to return to him again with the confidence of a Habakkuk or Luther.

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