Previous blogs and miscellaneous articles
This page will have all previous blogs on it. It will also have longer pieces that are too long for a blog, and miscellaneous items such as prayers and poems and reviews of books and other blog sites.
Initially, they will appear in a random order, but when they begin to accumulate – probably around the beginning of 2020 – we will begin to categorise them and also include our book titles within the category as well.
“And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple.
But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.” (Acts Ch 9 v 26 -27)
If there is one person from the Acts of the Apostles that I would like to have in any church that I went to, I think it would be Barnabas. I am sure that it would be more exciting to have Paul, or Peter or Philip, but I just love people who are risk takers in welcoming in the spiritual surprises. At this stage, Paul was still Saul, the one who everyone in Jerusalem thought was an enemy of the Church, everyone that is except for Barnabas. It takes a special sort of faith to be a bridge-builder, the sort of faith that can believe that God is able to cope with and convert even the most unlikely individuals.
Over twenty years ago, I had the privilege of meeting several people who were members of the Worldwide Church of God. At that time, the Church had come through a ten-year period of metamorphosis from what was acknowledged to be a cult, through to an evangelical church with a sound understanding of the gospel. Originally founded by Herbert W. Armstrong and known as the Radio Church of God, after the death of the founder, the new leadership went back to scripture and instituted a period of genuine reformation. The folk that I met in the church had demonstrated a willingness to reconsider their faith in a way that I had rarely seen in any mainline church.
Encouraged by what has happened in the Worldwide Church of God, since that time my wife and I have been praying for Jehovah’s Witnesses, as we believe that it is possible for God to accomplish a similar reformation in them as well. I get excited at the thought of hundreds of biblically aware God-fearers, being truly born again through an encounter with the risen Jesus on the level that Paul had on the Damascus Road. We have been to a couple of Kingdom Hall meetings, and we invite any Jehovah’s Witnesses in who knock on our door. I do not acknowledge them as Christians, and I can understand that some may classify them as enemies of the gospel, but what a potential pool of zeal and enthusiasm waiting to be transformed and harvested for front-line ministry for Jesus Christ.
I do believe it possible that we shall see some dramatic conversions from the ranks of those who presently at odds with the gospel. Who can say whether some might even be on the same level as Paul, and can we even consider the invigorating effect that might have on the slumbering church?
But if it happens, we shall need some bridge-builders like Barnabas who will be happy to welcome them and nurture them.
What becomes of the broken-hearted?
In 1966, a young soul singer named Jimmy Ruffin sang of the heart-break that comes when dreams are broken.
“As I walk this land with broken dreams
I have visions of many things
But happiness is just an illusion
Filled with sadness and confusion
What becomes of the broken-hearted
Who had love that’s now departed?
I know I’ve got to find
Some kind of peace of mind
His song was a reflection of the heart-break that can follow disillusioned young love, but many Christians today are also facing heart-break: the heart-break which can come when we too are disillusioned and our first love for Christ is lost or has drained away.
Jesus said many things which cut across our ways of thinking, but one of his first recorded sayings is also one of the strangest.
“Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted”( Mat Ch 5 v4)
Such sayings, even when spoken by the Son of God, are hard to receive when we are experiencing the condition, which they are addressing. When we are mourning, it does not seem appropriate to be classified as ‘blessed’ – whatever we might understand that to mean.
There are no accurate statistics to support various claims that substantial numbers of Christians have stopped going to church, because they have either lost their first love for Jesus, or they have become disillusioned with church. However, few of us will not know folk who appear to fit one or other of those categories, and some of us will fit in there ourselves.
I consider myself one of the fortunate ones who, having lost my first love for Jesus, and who, having been thoroughly disillusioned with church, have actually found peace of mind and discovered the blessedness promised by Jesus.
Jesus has comforted my own mourning by revealing that he, and he alone is life and reality. When he was on earth, the only people that Jesus really slammed into were those who were hypocrites. In his days, they were mainly scribes and Pharisees: those who made a good show outwardly, but who were dead inwardly. If he were to walk the earth today, he would not be beating those who are mourning a lack of reality, but those who claim to have it but who offer no more than an illusion of it.
Outward appearance is of little significance in the true Church, whatever shape or form it might take. The Pharisees were lavish in their gifts, prayers, and pomp and ceremony, but Jesus called them “whited sepulchres”– that is fancy tombstones with nothing but a corpse on the inside. The sort of person whom Jesus singled out for praise was a widow who gave all her money into God’s treasury. I suspect that many a church, even a good evangelical charismatic church would send her on a debt-counselling course to learn how to budget properly, rather than commending her and then inviting her round for a meal.
I am encouraged knowing that Jesus hates the hype and pretence that I have learned to hate. If you are truly fed up with pretence in church, please be encouraged: accept that as a step toward the blessedness that Jesus promised. We are to love the church, and to love it passionately, but we are also called to reject that which is no more than an outward show. What we desperately need is the wisdom and discernment to know the difference. The first step toward that is to examine ourselves and ask God to strip off our own facades. Once we see our own poverty we begin to realise that is a blessed place to be and we can encourage each other to rediscover reality.
*What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
A Children’s Story?
I have been wrestling for some time with trying to write for children. I do not really think it is my forte. Even when I try to simplify the language, I seem to end up with concepts that are more appropriate for adults. Then I thought that maybe some folk might appreciate my attempt,– so here goes.
Once upon a time, there were two lamps. Lucy Lamp and her younger brother, Lionel Lamp.
They lived in a skip outside a house, where they had been thrown a long, long time ago.
One day another lamp came along and shouted up to them “Why are you two living in a skip? There is a whole world out here just waiting for you.”
Lucy leaned over the edge of the skip in order to see who it was that was speaking.
It was a lamp, not unlike herself or Lionel, but much cleaner, and in his hand he held a candle.
“Why have you got a candle?” Asked Lucy
“All lamps were made to give light” said the lamp whose name was Bill. “If you come and join me, you can be all cleaned up and you can give light as well.”
Lucy looked at her lampshade and her lampstand. They certainly were very dirty. Then she looked at Lionel. “He is even more dirty than me” she thought. “We could both certainly do with a good wash, and it would be good to do what we were made to do.”
So taking Lionel by his lead, she gave him a lift up to the side and they both climbed down to join Bill.
“Come with me and meet the others, said Bill.” He led them both to his car and they drove off to a hut where there were lots and lots of other lamps. Over the door was a sign saying “THE TRUE CANDLEBEARERS”. All the lamps were singing and praying to the Lamp Maker, from whom, Bill explained, all the power comes from.
“The Lamp Maker lives in the electricity station in the sky and that is where all the power comes from” said Bill. “The Lamp Maker wants all of us to be bright and shining lights. He cleans us up and then tells us to give lights to others.”
Later that evening, Lucy and Lionel were talking. “I have always suspected there was something more than the skip” said Lucy. “It does make sense that lamps should give light” said Lionel, “let’s join this group that Bill is in.”
So Lucy and Lionel became True Candlebearers and the following Sunday they were taken to a sink and washed amidst lots of singing and happy faces.
The True Candlebearers were certainly a nice group of lamps, but Lucy had a nagging question: if they were all lamps, why did they all rely on candles? Bill tried to explain that when they had been made, the Lamp Maker had intended that they should actually give light themselves, but the first lamps had been disobedient, and although the Lamp Maker had forgiven them, they now had to try and shine themselves, and the best way to do that was to carry candles.
Lucy and Lionel tried very hard to be good True Candlebearers. They trimmed their wicks every day and regularly met with the others so that together they might give more light; but it was all very unsatisfactory. Lucy felt sure they were missing something.
Gradually Lucy and Lionel became a bit sloppy. Some days they didn’t trim their wicks, and occasionally they missed lighting them all together. The smoke and the soot from the candles made them dirty again and when they tried to clean themselves up, they got all smudgy.
Disheartened, Lucy and Lionel started visiting the skip again and, after a while they climbed back in amongst all the old familiar grime and rubbish.
One morning however, Lucy was poking around and discovered the original box that she had been packed in. Inside she found an instruction manual. Suddenly she saw the words “PLUG THE LAMP INTO THE ELECTRICITY AND IT WILL SHINE BRIGHTLY”.
“Could it be that easy?” thought Lucy. “We have been trying to be what we were made to be, and it has been such hard work with so little results.”
Showing the Lamp Makers instruction manual to Lionel, Lucy suggested they pray and ask the Lamp Maker to help them. The very next day, an old man came rummaging in the skip and took Lucy and Lionel out, put them in a bag and took them away. “These lamps will look just right in my living room” thought the man.
When he got them home, he plugged them into an electric socket and Lucy and Lionel lit up and shone as they had never done before.
So the moral of this story is: if you want to be a True Candlebearer, forget the candles and get plugged in!
Geriatrics for Jesus
I have never really worn tee shirts, I much prefer a loose fitting, open neck, short sleeved shirt for comfort. However, there is no doubt that a tee shirt carries a printed message better than any other garment.
Last week whilst in town, I noticed a lady helping an elderly gentleman along. She supported one arm whilst he leaned on a stick with the other. Although obviously physically weak, he did display a measure of sense of purpose, and I could not help noticing that his black tee shirt was emblazoned with the word Jesus in dazzling white.
I might now be described as an elderly gentleman (or at least as elderly) being within a year or two of the ages when both my father and brother died. Certainly, I am of an age when it is appropriate to get a funeral plan (done), write my own funeral service (partly done) and make a will out (on the urgent to do list). Much more important than these though, is ensuring that I am ready to meet the God who created me. Over the past few years I have given this matter some priority, and, I am now pleased to say that I am unaware of any outstanding matters in this respect.
The process has included some painful elements, such as asking God to judge me now, rather than saving it all up to be dealt with in one go later on when it will be too late to do anything about it. This has meant some apologies, some forgiving and some very real repentance. The great benefit, I realise, is that I appear to have a far lighter load to carry around every day, and a better ability to apply myself to important things. Another thing, is that I am much more sure of my faith and willing to agree with God regarding what he has done, rather than wavering on the matter. It would be valid for others to remark ‘and about time too’, and I freely admit that it is.
What has struck me recently is that I do not seem to be alone with what has happened. Of all the folk I come across, those who are getting sorted out appear to include a fair proportion of elderly men. That might be due to the fact that we are possibly nearer to dying than others, but I suspect that another factor is that we have finally got fed up with messing about with matters of faith.
Jesus told us all to the make the Kingdom of God our priority. I disobeyed for years. Sure, it was one of my priorities, but it was not absolutely at the top of the list. Now as I enter the ranks of the geriatrics, I am determined to make up as much time as I can, while I can.
I might stop short of wearing an actual appropriately worded tee shirt, but that will be for other reasons than fear or embarrassment. I will seek to show my light in other ways, and maybe just figuratively own up to “been there, done that, got the tee shirt”.
To Encourage the Others
Voltaire had a keen, but non-military involvement in the 1756 battle of Minorca. Although supportive of the French led by the Duc de Richelieu, Voltaire was sympathetic with the defeated British Admiral Byng, who was executed for his failure to defend the garrison at Minorca, which had subsequently surrendered to the French. Byng, who had led a fleet of thirteen ships against twelve French ships, apparently had insufficient supplies, and was probably ill equipped by the British Government for the venture upon which he had been sent. However, the British public and numbers of those in authority, including the king, were incensed by the loss of Minorca, which was considered a key military base.
The obvious scapegoat was Byng, and a convenient British law allowed for the death sentence on any British officer who was deemed not to have fought sufficiently earnestly when engaged in an act of war. Byng was sentenced to death and subsequently executed.
In Voltaire’s novel, Candide, whilst keeping close to the true account of the matter, he gave a report of the execution without actually naming Byng.
“Candide and Martin touched upon the Coast of England, and what they saw there.
They arrived at Portsmouth. The coast was lined with crowds of people, whose eyes were fixed on a fine man kneeling, with his eyes bandaged, on board one of the men of war in the harbour. Four soldiers stood opposite to this man; each of them fired three balls at his head, with all the calmness in the world; and the whole assembly went away very well satisfied.
“What is all this?” said Candide; “and what demon is it that exercises his empire in this country?” He then asked who was that fine man who had been killed with so much ceremony. They answered,” he was an Admiral”.
“And why kill this Admiral?”
“It is because he did not kill a sufficient number of men himself. He gave battle to a French Admiral; and it has been proved that he was not near enough to him.”
“But,” replied Candide, “the French Admiral was as far from the English Admiral.”
“There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.”
In writing this, Voltaire sought to focus the spotlight on the timeless absurdity of executing an admiral who loses a battle, especially when he had been ill equipped to engage in it. But it is not merely the folly of such an action that is highlighted, but the fact of unjustly punishing one person in order to discourage others. This is not of course an isolated instance. Many dictatorships characteristically demand a few (or many) executions from time to time, often of randomly selected individuals, in order to maintain a level of compliance among the populace. That is one of the marks of a dictatorship. It should not however, be a mark of a Democracy, or indeed of any just society that claims to rule by a code of righteousness.
It should always be a matter of concern in any Democracy, when laws or ‘guidelines’ encourage punishments which do not relate directly to an action or lack of action on the part of an individual, but which are passed merely in order to discourage others from acting in a particular way. This becomes doubly inappropriate when the punishment is not simply to discourage others, but when it also serves the purpose of making it appear that the right thing has been done when in fact it is quite the opposite.
I do not intend to list any such actions that are happening in our society today as they are becoming so increasingly obvious that it would become tedious to relate them. However if you do want to explore the matter further, a few youtube reports and interviews from Christian Concern would give you a good starting point.
And He Came to His Senses
I think one of the most poignant expressions in the bible is when the younger son in the parable in Luke Ch 15 v11 – 31, realises his true situation and starts the journey back home. It says: “And when he came to himself” or as some versions have it “When he came to his senses”.
If we try to analyse the character of the young man, we might come up with words such as foolish, bad or just plain silly, but however we describe him, there is a recognition that what he did was seriously wrong. It is harder to evaluate his elder brother. Reliable, regular, steadfast – possibly, but also morose and maybe jealous.
The interesting thing is that although the younger brother’s wrongdoing was far more obvious, and, by most human standards far more serious, in that situation he could still find a place that the bible describes as “coming to himself”.The bible acknowledges that he wasted all his inheritance on riotous living, which, if the older brother was right, involved squandering at least some of it on prostitutes. Left alone with the pigs, probably in some wood or wasteland, the younger brother had little choice but to contemplate what he had done. He was broke, hungry and bereft of human company, and in that condition he reflects on what he had become and the lost potential of what might have been. He “comes to himself”as if waking from a bad dream.
The fact is he cannot get himself out of his predicament by himself. No amount of wishful thinking or effort on his part will change the situation one iota. So he comes to a sensible decision “I will get up and go back to my father”. The decision is sensible because he cannot lose. He reasons that his father might take him on and give him a job along with the other labourers on the farm. But even if his father rejects him, he is no worse off than sitting starving among the pigs, for he can starve at home just as easily as he can starve away from home. We all know the happy ending of the story. His father does not reject him or take him on as a worker, but welcomes him back as a full member of the family. The only sad bit of the story is that the father’s grace to one son reveals the pent up anger harboured by the other son.
As someone who identifies more closely to the younger, rather than the older son, I am probably prejudiced, but it does seem to me, that realising and coming to terms with depths of failure and sin in life, enables a more joyful relationship with the Father, than is possible when concentrating on the sins of others from a place of supposed superiority.
It does seem that amongst those people whom Jesus spoke and ministered to, the most unresponsive were those who thought they were in the right, whereas the tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners heard him gladly. I do therefore admit to struggling with the increasing rules and regulations embraced by churches (often because of external societal pressure), which can restrict the participation of those who have mucked it up at some point in their lives. Such restrictions often deny the possibility of the real change made possible because of Jesus, and the reconciliation that he has accomplished for us with the Father.
It is perfectly understandable that as the world refuses to acknowledge the existence of Jesus or the Father, they conclude that real change is not possible. In the world’s agenda, there is no place for true repentance (a turning not merely a saying sorry) and consequently no place for reconciliation and re-instatement. Sin is pushed to one of two extremes: it is either legitimised and made acceptable, or it becomes so unacceptable that any measure of failure becomes a handicap for life. Both extremes are based on the denial of the possibility of change.
However the Church is not the world and Christian thinking must cut right across the world’s thinking. Wrongdoing should be treated even more seriously by Christians than by the world, but wrongdoing of any description can never be the end. Through the work of Christ applied in human lives by the Holy Spirit, a total change is always a possibility. This means, that whilst rightly recognising the need to protect and safeguard, children the vulnerable and the not so vulnerable among us, we must never lose sight that Jesus himself set out the ‘younger son factor’. In Christ, someone who has sinned in even the most unacceptable categories, may yet actually become a full family member again once they have come to their senses and been reconciled to the Father.
I do not think that I fit into a liberal, ‘softy’ category (I believe that there is some place in our justice system for both capital and corporal punishment), however I do also believe in the God enabled possibility of repentance and change. There is no doubt that the world is pressurising the Church to conform to its understanding of sin. We are moving in a difficult area, and there is no guarantee that we will get it right all the time, but whatever we conclude must be based on the bible and not on the world’s atheistic viewpoint.
A Creationist At Rest
My wife Catherine is the gardener in our family and she has a much greater awareness of nature than I. However, on one particularly sunny day recently when she opted to eat her lunch in the garden, I decided to join her. The recent weather – alternating very wet and very hot – has meant that our grass (I hesitate to call it a lawn) is not only growing fast, but has become home for a fairly wide variety of small wild flowers.
I tend to go barefoot around the house and garden, and it was especially pleasant to rest my feet in the unusually luxuriant carpet of three inch high grass and flowers. After eating, we just sat, enjoying each-others company and God’s world around us.
I say God’s world quite deliberately.
I am of a particularly unscientific mind, and I have never found myself able to understand the claims of some scientists, that the world we live in is the result of some form of random evolution. It has always seemed far more rational to me to believe in a Creator God, and as I grow older, I find myself increasingly comfortable in that position.
I do not grasp scientific fact very easily, but I have been much helped by some of the simple explanations I have heard recently. These explanations have not come from an evolutionist, but from a creationist who is one of the leading design engineers in the country. Prof. Stuart Burgess headed up the team that redesigned the cycle gearing for the world beating British team in the 2016 Olympic Games. Burgess is a scientist but not a biologist. He is an Engineer. It may be a surprise how many scientific engineers do not support the theory of evolution, and the reason is simple. Many designs in nature such as the human knee or the mechanism of a bird’s wing, only work in a fully developed form. Think of it in terms of a cantilever bridge over a river. Such a bridge can only work in its finished state: it cannot partially work or grow into a working model bit by bit. Scientists who are engineers, notice such things! When presented with the bone structure of the human knee and told that it developed in stages, the sensible reaction is ‘you have got to be joking’.
One thing that I do understand is how to play the odds. Brought up in a gambling environment, whilst I only rarely indulge these days, I do still know how to assess chance. I know for instance the rough odds of a lottery ticket winning the big prize. If you lined up the whole population of the British Isles from Lands End to John O’Groats, and then released a pigeon, there would be about the same chance of the pigeon crapping on you as there was of your ticket being the winner. As far as I can work it out, the random chances of many so called evolutionary stages, would be about as likely as the same pigeon coming back to target the same person, many, many times in a row without hitting anyone else. Not where I would place my money.
However, returning to my pleasant sit in the garden with my wife, I noticed a few bees collecting pollen from the clover dispersed among the buttercups and daisies. I then saw a couple of goldfinches near the birdbath. We may go several weeks without noticing any, then half a dozen or more will flit around for a while before passing on to who knows where. From deep within me stirred the instinct to give thanks, and I had nowhere else to go with it than to express it as thanks to God. It would have required a great deal of effort, including a denial of my own humanity, to refrain from responding to the creator for the wonders in creation.
I know that some Christians believe that God created by using evolution but I have never been able to grasp how that could work. I trust that I will be continually open to responding to the arguments of others, but I know that for the present I am very happy to adopt a place of rest as a committed creationist.
A Pig by Any Other Name?
When William the Conqueror invaded our fair Isle nearly a thousand years ago, though his vital battle was at Hastings in Sussex, one of his targets was Canterbury just under fifty miles away. Though the defeated (and killed) King Harold was from Wessex, he had been the first King of England to be crowned in Westminster Abbey and his rule was widely acknowledged. The religious seat of power however, had long been established at Canterbury, and the church was powerful enough for William to give his attention to that ancient city.
When his army turned from Sussex to Kent, they met some valiant resistance with troops gathering from as far away as the River Medway to the North and West of the County. Though there was some spirited opposition, William’s army was stronger and more determined, and in due course William became victorious.
What might have happened though, if troops from the West of the Medway had fought with equal resilience as those from the East side of the river?
We will never know. However, since that time Kent has been a divided County. The brave, freedom fighters to the East of the Medway claiming the noble name of Men of Kent, whilst their weaker, less resistant compatriots to the West of the River being designated as mere Kentish Men. (Whilst one or two other theories of the origins of these terms have been proffered over the Centuries, no true man of Kent such as myself, would give them more than a passing glance.)
Not only was I born a Man of Kent, no more than a hundred yards from the English Channel, across which the last successful invaders had come, but I went to School in Canterbury. The school, founded only around a hundred and fifty years after William the Conqueror, took the name of Simon Langton, brother of the Thirteenth Century Archbishop of Canterbury, and was and is one of the oldest in the land.
With such a rich heritage behind me, imagine my chagrin to hear that one of the Corona viruses had been given the name of ‘the Kent’ variant. Surely, nothing could be more offensive than to designate a virus by the name of its place of origin? Having lived some seventy odd years with an (admittedly small) level of pride, and (much larger) fond memories of my homeland, might I not be devastated and deeply offended that the land of my birth is now considered no more than an appendage to designate a microscopic virus, especially when it is labelled no more than a ‘variant’.
You can understand my relief when I heard, that in order to avoid such offence, the Government of England decreed that the virus variants would be given letters of the alphabet so that there could be no suggestion that any County or Country bore any responsibility for their hitherto nominated namesake. (We must just hope that the Greeks are not offended that we have used their alphabet to designate the variants instead of the English alphabet.) Perhaps we should all be grateful that we have such sensitive and sensible people in power, who are willing to give their valuable time and our money to avoiding any possibility of offence.
No doubt, there will soon be official guidelines – or even laws, that outline what we may and may not call each other. After all, if what we call a microscopic bug is of such vital importance, how much more should we be reclassifying any person or thing that finds a given designation offensive.
Perhaps we should enquire whether there are any animals who are offended by their names. To start with, I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘the Guinea Pig’ or ‘the Hedge Hog’ objected to being called a variation of a pig. The poor ‘Warthog’ has a doubly offensive name, and is an actual member of the pig family as well. Might they not prefer to be known as ‘Guinea Kittens’, ‘Hedge Puppies’ or ‘Genetically Disadvantaged Bump Faced Bunnies’?
It is of course at this stage that I should say: “And then I awoke, and realised that it had all been a dream”.
But it isn’t, is it? We do actually live in a world gone mad.
Perhaps now is the time to pray more earnestly – ‘Come Lord Jesus!’
(I tried to think of a way to write sensibly about the recent, supposedly offensive, naming of covid virus variants, but I could not think how to rationally address such an irrational situation. So please bear with this poor attempt to do so.)
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.