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.
(This sketch may be performed without obtaining further permission from us provided there is a verbal or written note that it is copyright Joe Story, The Unboring Book Company.)
One large table; four chairs; one post box; some large books; pen and writing paper; imaginary door; imaginary tree.
Jim, Fred, Sue, Mary (all brothers and sisters) and a Messenger. It is quite OK to swap male and female parts around to suit available cast.
Note: All stage instructions are in brackets.
(Centre stage, four brothers and sisters sitting round a table. MESSENGER enters stage right and hands a letter to JIM who opens it.)
JIM: It’s from Dad.
FRED: What does it say?
JIM: Not a lot. All it says is “Will you please dig over my field? See you in a fortnight. Love from Dad.”
SUE: Of course we’ll do that. Better send him a note telling him that’s OK.
MARY: Speak for yourself. I don’t want to do it!……..(Rises to leave through door stage left)
See you!……..(Goes through door, sits down under tree and starts reading a book)
JIM: Well we’ll do it……..(Starts writing a letter) “Dear Dad, Sue, Fred and I will dig your field but Mary says she won’t.”………(Rises from table and starts going to post box stage right)…..I’ll just put this in the post…..(Puts letter in the box and sits down again)……That’s that. Let’s see what Dad says again.
FRED: We want to get it right……(Reading letter)……“Will you please dig over my field. See you in a fortnight. Love from Dad.”…….(Rubbing chin thoughtfully)……I suppose it is from Dad. Do you think we ought to check? After all we don’t want to be silly do we?
JIM: I’ll drop a quick line to make sure…..(Starts writing)…..“Dear Dad, about your letter asking us to dig your field. Did you write it? Love from Jim.”…..(Jim rises, goes to the post box, posts letter and returns).
FRED: While we are waiting, perhaps we ought to check up exactly what Dad wants us to do.
SUE: Yes, I was wondering whether I understand the word ‘dig’. We must make sure that we get it right.
JIM: You look that up. I’ll check ‘field’ and perhaps Fred had better look up the meaning of ‘my’
……(They all get out large books, pens and paper and begin studying.)
(While Fred, Sue and Jim are doing this, Mary puts down her book, stands up thoughtfully and as if coming to a decision says…)
MARY: Bah! I can’t concentrate on my book. I know I ought to be digging dad’s field even though I don’t want to……(pauses)…..Ah well let’s get on with it…….(takes up spade and leaves stage left).
(Fred, Sue and Jim look up from their books.)
SUE: Hey this is really interesting. It say that to dig can mean –To excavate –To turn over with a spade –To poke or thrust –To scoop out –To burrow and to mine –To…….(Jim interrupts)
JIM: Yes, and it says here that ‘field’ is sometimes used for ‘an area where a battle takes place’ or ‘open pasture used for sports activity’
FRED: All it says for ‘my’ is ‘of or belonging to’. What does that mean?
JIM: As I was saying, do you think that Dad means something about thrusting with swords on the field of battle?
SUE: Well it certainly says dig ‘over’ my field. ‘Over’ means above so it can’t mean putting anything into the soil can it?
FRED: I think you are right. One thing I’m certain of, he can’t mean us to get our hands dirty or to do any hard work. I mean, that’s so, so demanding. Surely, Dad wants us to be happy and, well, careful. I mean, if we used a fork or spade on the earth we could injure ourselves and get tetanus. I mean, well, we must be responsible mustn’t we.
SUE: Absolutely! No one today would ever do anything like that. People would think we were being foolish. Fancy risking our lives digging in… (With disgust)…dirt!
JIM: I’ll just drop a quick note to Dad to ask him to explain more clearly……(Jim quickly writes, takes letter to post box and returns)….. I’ve just been thinking. Do you think that there is any significance in the fact that Dad says ‘see you in a fortnight’? I reckon it could mean that we are to wait until he comes home.
FRED: It would certainly make more sense
SUE: He could tell us what he wants us to do then.
JIM: Maybe he means that he will do it and that we are just to prepare ourselves to help him
FRED: Or maybe just watch him…….(Jim jumps to his feet and shouts.)
JIM: That’s it. Don’t you see? In his letter he says ‘will you please dig my field’…’will you’. He doesn’t want us to actually do it……(Fred interrupts)
FRED: Of course not.
JIM: No. he just wants us to be willing to do it……(All three lean back on chairs with a look of satisfaction. They pause for a few seconds. Then Jim leans forward)
JIM: Of course, we must be honest and examine our motives
FRED: No one today could possibly want to do what Dad is asking.
SUE: But we are willing to be made willing
JIM & FRED: Oh yes! We are willing to be made willing
JIM: I’ll just write another letter to Dad……(He writes as he speaks)…..“Dear Dad, as we wrote earlier, Fred Sue and I will obey your letter though Mary has said she won’t….(He smirks at the others)…… but we realise that the most important thing is for our motives to be right. Please therefore make us willing to be willing to help you do whatever it is you are going to do when you come home. Your obedient son, Jim.”……..(He gets up, post the letter and returns to the table)
SUE: I’m really glad we got that sorted out.
JIM: Yes, I’ve been really blessed studying Dad’s letter
FRED: I know that’s been good, but I think that we have missed the most important bit. Look! It says “Love from Dad”. That’s the important thing. Dad loves us.
SUE & JIM: You’re right. That’s absolutely super!…….(All three lean back on their chairs looking happy and satisfied)
JIM: I think that this is one of the best letters Dad has ever written us………(enter Mary from stage left with the spade over her shoulder)
MARY: Hi there. You look happy and contented. What gives?
JIM: We’ve been really blessed by studying Dad’s letter. What have you been doing?
MARY …….(sitting down to relax)….. I’ve just been digging dad’s field.
Catherine and I do not have a television, so during lockdown we (mainly me) have been watching more DVDs than usual. I managed to pick up a few second hand copies of Hustle and worked my way through the first four series. If you are not familiar with Hustle, it was a popular television programme a few years ago about a group of grifters and their elaborately staged confidence tricks.
In one episode, they managed to sell a piece of land in inner London that was supposed to be on the site of an old Roman Gold mine that still had unworked seams. In keeping with the ethos of the series, it was of course all a con. The thing about a good con is that it has to include claims that are barely believable, but just enough so to hook a greedy sucker.
Some of the stories of Jesus would have made a good basis for an episode of Hustle. He told one about a man who found some treasure in a field and sold everything he owned in order to buy the field so that the treasure would be his. He told another about a man who was a trader in pearls who came across one that was the best he had ever seen. He too went and sold everything in order to buy that one pearl.
In both cases, Jesus compared the incidents to someone discovering the Kingdom of Heaven. The points he made, and he made them very clearly, both in these stories and in the rest of his teaching, was that firstly, the Kingdom of Heaven is very precious indeed, and secondly, that it would cost a man or woman everything they had in order to get it. Now the strange thing is, that most of us respond to Jesus as if he is trying to pull a fast one on us. We consider the risk is just too high to lay everything that we have and are on the line, in exchange for something that seems barely real.
True, virtually every Christian in virtually every church is prepared to give lip service to the importance and value of the Kingdom. Day after day, a substantial proportion of the earth’s population appear to faithfully pray that God’s Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. However, it is hard to seriously believe that many of the prayers stretch beyond the sort of wishful thinking that accompanies the purchase of a couple of lottery tickets – wouldn’t it be great if God’s Kingdom did actually manifest in our lives, but we don’t really expect that it will.
The problem is, as the stories of Jesus illustrate, we have to give everything first, before we can receive the Kingdom, and then we have to move into the realm of Spirit led faith in order to see it work out in our lives. Perhaps it would be good to investigate Jesus’ claims as if they might be a con. If we decide they are, then we can safely forget about the Kingdom of God and just treat it on the same level as we do Cinderella or Peter Pan. However, if, after thorough investigation, we decide that Jesus was actually telling the truth and the Kingdom really is worth everything, then what could be more sensible than paying the price of a full surrender of all we have and are in exchange for it?
I have known for a long time that I am not normal. I neither love nor hate Marmite, I do not have a mobile phone and I am unable to get excited by any sport that involves a ball. I tend to speed read books, taking just a couple of hours to cover what others spend a couple of days on, and I find it almost impossible to concentrate on a single task, being much more at ease when I am trying to do a few things at once.
My brother was probably mildly autistic, and did not possess terribly good social skills, but he was able to identify virtually any piece of music from its first few bars and able to remember the colour and pattern of a pair of socks worn by a casual acquaintance whom we met a few days previously. My traits are quite different from those he possessed but no less off-centre in their own way.
We both shared a fairly agile mind when it came to numbers, and though I struggle to remember names, faces, clothes and what I was doing yesterday, I can remember the price of virtually any food item that I have seen in various shops and supermarkets.
I and some friends were recently discussing enneagrams, and following our conversation I decided to check myself out. It was no great surprise to discover that my highest scores were on two types that are generally considered opposites. A few years ago I went on a course aimed at helping people to discover spiritual gifts. My two highest scores were for hospitality and the prophetic, and the trainer raised an eyebrow as he commented that it is not usually possible to combine those two things.
I am now of an age and experience where I have come to terms with my oddities and am assured that God copes with them as well. I recognise that some people find it strange that I combine very high levels of ability in some areas – I am able to co-ordinate and organise a concert, cook a meal for a couple of hundred people or give a concise history of theological development in the Church over several centuries – with very low levels in other areas. I am unable to use a mobile phone, find a station on the radio or get round to filing that one piece of paper that has been on my desk for six weeks.
In learning how to cope with myself, I have found that God has given me an increasing appreciation of the vast range of differences in others. I have learnt that the God who creates every snowflake with a different pattern, actually loves diversity in the church. I have come to understand that unity and uniformity are not only different but are diametrically opposed to each other. I find myself increasingly disappointed to discover churches where the range of activities, style of service, and songs sung have been copied from either a church up the road or one a couple of thousand miles away. I find it very sad when a standard way of doing things is imposed on the basis of denominational identity, ethnicity or social background. Whilst I recognise that in a fallen world there is natural pull for like to gather with like – it is generally both safe and comfortable – in the new world the lion will lay down with the lamb, and I want to have a foretaste of the new world in this life.
I am committed therefore, to exploring the differences that people can bring into the Kingdom of God as it is expressed through the Church. Social background, ethnicity, age, abilities, preferences of style and of course the full range of gifts, natural, spiritual and supernatural. Not everything will be acceptable. Because we are fallen, some things will need to be repented of, left behind and laid aside, but many things will be far more enriching than we can possibly imagine.
I have done some preparation on my own funeral service, and the words I have chosen to accompany the photo on the service sheet are: ‘He was excellent in parts’. These could probably apply to many of us. I am persuaded that it is a far better use of our time to seek out and appreciate the excellent parts that are likely to be there somewhere, rather than the often much easier task of identifying and exposing the bad.
I love pickled walnuts, but they are very expensive so I only have them as a special treat. However, I have discovered that if I buy a jar of the cheapest sweet silverskin onions, drain them and transfer them into the vinegar that is left from the walnuts, after a few weeks I have some onions that have imbibed the rich taste of walnuts. If I had lived at the time of Jesus, my friends would have described my activity as baptising the onions in walnut liquor.
In classical Greek, the most common use of baptise (in its various forms) was to indicate the coming together of two things where one transfers some of its attributes to the other. So a piece of cloth soaked in dye or a small dirty boy scrubbed in soapy water could both be described as being baptised. Whilst the action involved may often, even usually, have been to plunge the one into the other, the emphasis was always on the result of the act, not the mode of the act itself. The proof that baptism had happened was in the changed colour of the cloth or the cleanliness of the child.
Whilst the term and concept of baptism was used in Jewish and Christian religious language – both the flood and the crossing of the Red Sea were called baptisms – the word was primarily one that was used in everyday life, and virtually always with the emphasis on the result of baptism rather than the act. When Jesus told the disciples that they were to be baptised in Holy Spirit, whilst they would have anticipated that something would happen, the focus of their thinking would have been on what sort of change would occur through that happening. Just as a piece of cloth immersed in red dye would become red, people immersed in Holy Spirit would become holy and spiritual.
Just as our understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus is shaped by the fact that it occurred on the feast of Passover, which recalled the sacrifice of the lamb in Egypt and the deliverance that God accomplished through it, so too our understanding of the coming of the Holy Spirit needs to be shaped by the fact that he came on the feast of Pentecost. The Greek of Acts 2 v 1 can and should be read as ‘Now when the day of Pentecost was being fulfilled’. All the Jewish feasts embodied some agricultural significance, but they also had religious significance as well. Pentecost was the occasion when the Jews remembered and celebrated the commencement of the Old Covenant through the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, when God came down in fire and gave his law to his people on tablets of stone. The prophets had foretold that there would be a New Covenant, when God would impart his Spirit and write his law on the hearts of men and women. That New Covenant promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost.
Much is often made of the power that accompanied the coming of the Spirit, and of course there was power, but it is important to remember that Peter and many of the others had already been raising the dead and casting out demons beforehand when they had previously been sent out by Jesus. The biggest difference by far was that the disciples now had revelation imparted inwardly to their hearts and minds. Just as God had written his will on tablets of stone, he was now writing it on the fleshy tables of the heart.
Sometimes baptism in the Holy Spirit is relegated to some sort of added extra, but in the scriptural account of the early church, any suspicion that believers may have had an incomplete experience of the Passover and Pentecostal events was remedied as soon as possible. As we celebrate this season of Pentecost again, let us be certain that we do so on true and full biblical foundations.
A couple of my Booklets, Fresh Approaches to Understanding Baptism and Understanding God’s New Covenant in Jesus Christ, can be read online for free or ordered in hard copy from the book section of this website. They both expand on the biblical teaching of baptism in water and Spirit and the relationship to the New Covenant.
I have long considered writing something on gambling, but have wavered because it is quite likely that some of you at least will misunderstand. I have no problem in acknowledging that I do occasionally gamble. I do not do so very often, but when I do I thoroughly enjoy it.
I once read an article in a (very) evangelical magazine, which pronounced categorically that all gambling was wrong. It did not offer any biblical basis for its stance but simply stated that the act of gambling was motivated by wanting to get something for nothing and that this was an unchristian attitude. I did contact the editor and offered to show that the writer of the article was mistaken, but my offer was declined.
I have found that many, probably most Christians do consider gambling to be wrong, but none that I have had conversations with have been able to clearly explain why they hold that position. They have generally pointed out that some people gamble unwisely beyond what they can afford, and that others become addicted to it. This is obviously true. It is true in the same way that some people eat unwisely and become addicted to overeating, or that others use their phones far too much and seriously struggle when they have to stop using them. The fact that some people misuse something is an inadequate basis for saying that any use is wrong.
The magazine article was also based on error, two errors in fact. Firstly the writer claimed to be able to judge the motivation of everyone who gambled – such an obvious fallacy that it is hardly worth countering – and secondly he assumed that it is always wrong to want to get something for nothing, or at least for a very little. My wife and I have a small vegetable plot in our garden. We have planted seeds (which cost very little) in the hope that in due course we will have some free vegetables. Is that wrong, and if not, why not?
Both having a bet and planting seeds involves an element of risk, chance if you like. At times, such as the Irish potato famine, whole seasons of crops have failed nationally, causing ruin and even death. All agriculture is based on the principle of sowing a little to reap a lot with the minimum of required effort. That also appears to be the basis of investment in stocks and shares; something that virtually every major Christian institution gets involved in. If we decide that wanting to get something for nothing, or for a very little, is wrong, we have the freedom to adopt that stance, but surely we should be consistent in the way that we do so.
One argument that I have heard against gambling is that it is a waste of money. That again involves a couple of assumptions. Firstly – and again an obvious fallacy – is that a gambler will inevitably lose money, but there are many, myself included, who often win. It also assumes that either the gambler gets no pleasure from the act or, perhaps more pertinently, that it is wrong to spend money on such pleasurable activities. This is particularly relevant in my own case. I have good Christian friends who think nothing of spending substantial sums of money on tickets for a football or rugby match. They have concluded that it is legitimate to pay for such pleasure and, in practice, I suspect that few Christians (including the very evangelical) will disagree with them. But I have been challenged by some of those friends, for spending less than the price of a rugby ticket for a bet in a horse race, which for me is infinitely more enjoyable than sitting out on a wet and windy day watching a lot of grown men chasing an odd shaped ball around a muddy field.
When pressed to explain why they think what I do to be wrong whereas what they are doing is perfectly acceptable, the response has tended to be ‘well you are gambling’, which of course explains nothing. However, if they are willing to think about the matter, that means no more than that they spend say £40 on sport for pleasure and have no possibility of recovering any of that money, whereas I spend £40 on sport for pleasure and sometimes get it back with a profit.
I do not want to press the point too far. Of course some gambling is wrong and of course some people misuse it and become addicted. However I believe that if the same criteria which is used to validate or invalidate gambling, is applied to numerous other human activities, such as those mentioned of eating or watching rugby or football, then gambling will fare no worse than others.
At the 2002 Edinburgh Book Fair, Antonia Fraser attributes this saying to Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV of France. Whilst it has been variously attributed to other French princesses, if it was ever said, it should probably more accurately be translated as “Let them eat brioche”.
‘Who cares?’ I hear you say. ‘Does it matter who said it, and does it really matter whether it was cake or brioche?’ Probably not.
On the other hand, the issue as to whether a Jaffa Cake is a cake or a biscuit has much more significance. Produced at the McVitie’s factory in Stockport, the Jaffa cake production area covers an acre and includes a production line over a mile long. They are big business, and as such, a right definition is crucial because chocolate covered biscuits carry 20% value added tax whilst chocolate covered cakes do not.
The issue was settled in court in 1991 with the Jaffa Cake being defined as a cake in spite of it being the size of a biscuit and being eaten like a biscuit. One of the factors taken into account by the court, was that, in common with other cakes, Jaffa Cakes go hard when stale whereas biscuits go soft. With tens of billions of Jaffa Cakes sold since that definition, the treasury has lost out on millions of pounds of VAT income.
Perhaps more than any previous generation, ours is happy not to place any real significance on accurate definitions. If you want to call it a cake, call it a cake, but if you want to call it a biscuit call it a biscuit.
Sometimes, it simply does not matter; a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. However sometimes it does matter and one of the most difficult tasks we face today is deciding when it does and when it does not.
Perhaps more than any other group in history, the Pharisees tried to define everything; at least as far as the law of God went. Their problem was that they took things too far. For many of us Christians today, we are struggling to find the right balance. We definitely should not copy the Pharisees, but neither should we just take on board the prevalent cultural norms of our society.
So how do we become better at judging when to insist on accurate definition and when to say, ‘who cares – it does not really matter?’. I am going to suggest four ways:
Firstly, allow our thinking to be shaped by the Holy Spirit through what God says in the bible.
Secondly, make sure we don’t ignore our inner voice of conscience. It is not infallible, but it is a helpful guide.
Thirdly, read and research things that you disagree with, not to disprove them, but to understand why others hold the views that they do.
Fourthly, don’t be afraid to disagree and argue. It will need to be done graciously, and it will require effort to ensure we are informed in what we say.
For many of us, it is perhaps too late to solve the situation completely; it can take a lifetime of learning to even begin to judge rightly on the hundreds of issues that face us. However, whatever stage we are at in life, we can all improve a little. Even from this blog you have learned how to distinguish between a cake and a biscuit.
It is difficult to be certain when the Exodus took place, but we can be pretty sure that Egypt was still a major, if not the major power in the middle east when it happened. The pharaohs ruled over vast territories and one of them, Ramases II had an exceptionally long reign, probably sixty-seven years. Some have speculated that he was on the throne when the Israelites entered Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. Whether that was the case or not, he was certainly still an impressive ruler in the early years of the people of Israel. Ramases II was also known by the name of Ozymandias taking the title King of Kings and, in keeping with this claim, he had vast monuments built in his honour.
It is possible to see a fragment of one of these monuments in the British Museum. I say a fragment, it is reckoned to weigh about seven and a quarter tons, even though it is only a small piece of the original work. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote of this statue:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Though part of the statue remained, the empire had vanished back into the desert, and Ozymandias vanished into obscurity.
There have always been leaders, whether kings, emperors, tyrants or generals who have laid claim to greatness, and indeed in their lifetimes some may have had some grounds for such a claim, but their dominions have ultimately vanished, not necessarily back into desert, but at their best to be remembered as monuments and in museums.
The crucial thing that we all have to face is where Jesus fits into this scheme of things, for he too is given the name King of Kings and Lord of Lords. One major difference between Jesus and all the great leaders throughout history, is that they were great in their lifetimes and then became obscure in their deaths, whereas Jesus never held any position of power while he lived but became great in his death. The resurrection is the dividing line.
Whether we believe in Ozymandias is of little consequence. Though one of the longest lived and mightiest rulers in the world, all that remains are large pieces of carved stone shared between a museum and the desert. Jesus too has his share of statues and monuments, and if that is all, then who cares? But if he lives, if he has conquered death, then that has got to be pretty important and is surely worth thinking about.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes go through periods when I find it hard to believe God. I have no problem coping with the theory of faith; I am convinced that God can do anything, but that is different from believing that God will act in reality in my life.
As far as I can tell, there are two problems. Firstly, when I look at myself, it appears obvious that I lack everything that is needed for spiritual life and godliness. Secondly, the devil, who is a liar, constantly whispers, or sometimes shouts, that God’s word is not to be trusted.
My wife and I are re-reading the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis at the moment, where God makes promises that are impossible to be fulfilled. Why does he do that? Why does God promise things that no man alive will ever be able to accomplish? It is surely in order that we learn not to look to ourselves for the strength to carry out his will, nor to listen to the devil, who always seeks to turn us away from what God has said to what he, the devil, is saying.
The nub of the matter is this. Our hopes and aspirations are no more than sand falling through our fingers, unless, and this is a big unless, unless God will keep his word and do what is impossible for us, but possible for him.
One of the lesser known Wesley hymns that was included in the early Salvation Army songbooks, is astonishingly bold in affirming the possibility of the impossible.
All things are possible to him
That can in Jesus’ name believe;
Lord, I no more thy truth blaspheme,
Thy truth I lovingly receive;
I can, I do believe in thee;
All things are possible to me.
The most impossible of all
Is that I e’er from sin should cease;
Yet shall it be; I know it shall;
Jesus, look to thy faithfulness!
If nothing is too hard for thee,
All things are possible to me.
Though earth and Hell the word gainsay,
The word of God can never fail;
The Lamb shall take my sins away,
‘Tis certain, though impossible;
The thing impossible shall be,
All things are possible to me.
When thou the work of faith hast wrought,
I here shall in thine image shine,
Nor sin in deed or word or thought;
Let men exclaim and fiends repine,
They cannot break the firm decree;
All things are possible to me.
Thy mouth, O Lord, hath spoke, hath sworn
That I shall serve thee without fear,
Shall find the pearl which others spurn,
Holy and pure and perfect here;
The servant as his Lord shall be;
All things are possible to me.
All things are possible to God,
To Christ, the power of God in man,
To me, when I am all renewed,
When I in Christ am formed again,
And witness, from all sin set free,
All things are possible to me.
I find myself in inner conflict as to whether I want to, can or dare to sing it, but actually when I do, I find my heart responding again in faith toward God. I am reminded by the writer to the Hebrews, that without faith it is impossible to please God, and that in order to please him we must both believe that he exists and, crucially that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.
So I find myself turning yet again to God who is faithful. I stop looking at my own incompetence and inability, stop listening to the lies of the devil, and look to the faithfulness of Jesus to make possible that which is impossible.
During the summer before I started work in my first job, I discovered that not everyone in a position of authority is as competent as their position requires.
As young fit teenagers looking for a bit of ready cash, my friend Rik and I found out that the local council were looking for some casual labour to clean out a boating pool on the seafront near where we lived. Although the pool had a concrete surround, it had been dug out of an area of grassland and the bottom of it was simply an earthy clay. Over the years, reeds had grown in the pool and they had begun to foul the small propellers on the boats. Quite sensibly, the local council decided to drain the pool and dig up the reeds. Rik, I, and a handful of others were duly taken on for a week’s work and we set to in glorious sunshine with a sea breeze to cool us down. By the end of the week, we had uprooted all the reeds and piled them in heaps around the bottom of the pool to await removal by a council lorry. One more good day’s work would probably have had the job completed.
Then a man from the council came to assess what we had done. He took one look at the situation, and decided that there would be no need to waste money on having us shift the piles onto the side of the pool and then onto a lorry. Instead, he said that if we refilled the pool, all the reeds would float and we could then rake them off to the side. So the pool was refilled, all the reeds sank to the bottom and we all got another week’s work to dig them all out again. The interesting thing, was that all of us ignorant teenagers, and also the job foreman thought the decision to be wrong, but none of us said anything because the man from the council was the one in authority and we assumed that he knew what he was doing.
A university professor by the name of Peters studied the correlation between authority and competence and came up with a formula called the Peter Principle. It was that as a general rule, people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. The idea is simple. For instance, a mechanic in a garage is both competent and reliable, the boss needs a new foreman and promotes him to the position. If the good mechanic turns out to be an incompetent foreman, instead of going back to his old job (which he was good at) he stays in the new one (which he is no good at). However, if he proves to be a good foreman, he might then get promoted to works manager. If the good foreman turns out to be an incompetent works manager, instead of going back to his old job (which he was good at) he stays in the new one (which he is no good at). However if he is a good works manager, he might be promoted to area manager etc. And so it goes on till he finally gets promoted to a job which he cannot do and then he stays there. In this way, positions of authority can have a tendency to be filled by people who were good at something else but who are not very good at the job they end up doing.
There are of course many notable exceptions and the principle is far from infallible. However, it is surprising how many times it does actually happen. Raymond Hull developed Professor Peter’s theory in a little book just called ‘The Peter Principle’ and it is well worth reading if you can find an old copy of it.
In local and national government, incompetence may be widely recognised by those outside the bureaucratic system, but rarely acknowledged by those within it. However, we all would do well to look at ourselves and ask whether we genuinely have the ability to match the responsibilities which we carry – whatever level they are at.
Incompetence will be minimised where an environment of honesty and humility prevails. For Christians, the Holy Spirit will always be nudging us to recognise incompetence in ourselves and then subsequently in others. Where robust but gracious challenge is welcomed, the Holy Spirit will press that home and help eliminate the Peter Principle in us and our churches.
I once worked for a man who lived with his mother in a small terraced house in London, where their front garden was just a tiny patch of ground between the house and the pavement. In spite of this, his mother, who was a keen gardener, used to try to make the best use she could of the area available. Her solution was to grass it over but also to plant it fairly intensly with daffodil bulbs. Come the early spring, the patch was a mass of bright and cheerful yellow flowers.
Their next-door neighbour had a similar patch of ground but it usually stayed as bare or slightly weedy earth. On one occasion, when their own garden was in full bloom with a fairly spectacular show of flowers, my friend came home from work to discover that since he had gone out that morning, his neighbour’s garden had been transformed and was also full of daffodils rivalling their own.
Somewhat puzzled by the apparently instant transformation, my friend leant over the dividing wall and gently plucked at one of the flowers. It came straight away from the earth, and he found himself holding a plastic daffodil head on a green covered wire stem. The neighbour had discovered a short cut to apparent beauty that eliminated the wearisome process of having to grow something from scratch.
It is often a temptation to try to imitate a work of God by producing something which, superficially at least, looks the same but which has no more reality than a plastic daffodil. Jesus said that in God’s vineyard, he is the vine, we the branches, and his Father the gardener, and that the Father will cut, prune and tend as necessary in order that the whole vine should be fruitful. From our point of view that can be both a painful and seemingly over-long and tedious process. It can therefore appear to be an attractively easy option to create something that looks like the real thing, by pressing people (or allowing ourselves to be pressed) into an outwardly conforming shape of church structure and individual Christian behaviour.
When God deals with us directly, he always ensures that we are securely rooted in Jesus, and that the fruit in our lives originates in Jesus’ life not our own. When we try to produce fruit by our own efforts (often trying to conform to patterns laid down by others) it may look similar to God’s fruit, but on close examination it will lack the life that can only come from Jesus.
There are plenty of church options around that seem slick, professional and quite pleasing to the ear and eye, but many of them do not stand up to close scrutiny. Whilst initially they may seem very attractive, when you get close, they almost appear to have all come out of one mould. But no two living things are ever identical. Even in one species like daffodils, diversity is rampant because life originates in living roots, not from the outward pressure of a mould. Real things also show the blemishes that occur in growth, often from attacks by assorted pests and insects. Insects rarely go for the plastic version. They at least can tell the difference between the real and the imitation.