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.

Ozymandias

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.

What is the difference between possible and not possible?

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.

The Peter Principle

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.

Plastic Daffodils

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.

Give me sunshine

I am not really a sunbathing enthusiast, but I do know that if I wanted to be, then I would have to go out of doors and expose my skin to the sun. If I did want a tan, however much I desired one, it would not happen by staying in a darkened room and simply trying hard to get one. I am pretty certain that it would not work either, by praying very hard for the sun to come indoors where I am instead of me going out to where it is.

I do understand that even in a darkened room, whilst the sun sustains me and its warmth permeates my whole environment, just because one aspect of its work reaches into that sort of situation, it does not mean that all other aspects will as well.

I am very grateful to God that wherever I am, even in the darkest spiritual period of my life, his presence and power will sustain me. However, there are some aspects of his work, which will only happen if, by faith, I walk out of that room and consciously and deliberately expose myself to the full blaze of his glory. Paul says in two Corinthians chapter three that it is as we look at the Lord with uncovered faces, the glory coming from the Lord transforms us into his likeness.

Some aspects of God’s work, especially his transforming work in us, happen as we expose ourselves to him, and they will not happen when we hide away, even though we may be trying hard or even praying hard to make it happen. We are encouraged to enter boldly into God’s presence in order to find grace and mercy to help in time of need. The transforming power of God comes from the risen Christ upon his heavenly throne. It is from there that he sends his Spirit to make the work of his Passion effective in the lives of his people on earth. If we shrink away from the exposing light of the Spirit we will not change, just as the sun will not tan us if we hide away from it.

There is only one sun which sustains our world, but the effects of the sun itself, and its light and heat are all different in the ways they function and relate to the various aspects of our needs on earth. There is only one God, but Father, Son and Holy Spirit have clear differences in the way in which they relate to us, God’s people. One of the increasing areas of confusion in the churches is how we are to respond to God who is Trinitarian, clearly one yet also clearly three.

A blog of a few hundred words is hardly the place to try to develop a right understanding of the Trinity for it is a mystery. However, it is perhaps the place to sound an alarm, that a lack of right understanding of the Trinitarian God we worship, may be part of the reason why so many of us are not seeing the growth in godliness that we long for.

We may always benefit from the light and heat of the sun even when we are hidden from it, but we cannot receive the ultra violet rays needed to give us a tan unless we expose ourselves to it. In like manner, God’s providential grace will benefit us even when we are hidden from him, but his transforming grace requires us to actively open ourselves to him in expectant faith.

Does the Holy Spirit go off somewhere between meetings?

I don’t know if you have noticed, but one of the puzzling things that has crept into some churches over recent years is the strange habit of welcoming the Holy Spirit into meetings. Now of course, I am as pleased as anyone to know that the Holy Spirit is present with us when we meet together. However, the Bible assures us that he is always present at those times, and even when we are not meeting together. If we are truly part of the body of Christ, then we are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit both individually and corporately all of the time.

I struggle to get my head round the idea, seemingly implied in this new habit, that when I meet with other Christians, the Holy Spirit somehow leaves us at some point before we get there, and then waits outside until we ask him in. Perhaps I have misunderstood what people mean when they pronounce a welcome to him, but it seems an unusual practice, to welcome someone who has been with us all the time, and who will stay with us when we leave. And if, by some strange (indeed impossible) phenomenon, we were actually separated from the Holy Spirit, then it seems to me that it would be more fitting for him to welcome us back than the other way around.

I can certainly understand people being grateful for the fact that the Holy Spirit is present, and I can appreciate a thankfulness for those times when we may experience that fact in a greater measure than at other times. However, our awareness of his presence is not actually any indication of the reality of his presence (I suspect most of us are unaware of him being with us when we sleep).

I find this practice doubly confusing because it also seems to imply that the Holy Spirit is ‘out there somewhere’ hanging around waiting to be invited in. Jesus taught that when we drink from him, then the Holy Spirit will flow out from us. We are filled with Holy Spirit as a consequence of our union with Jesus (he used the illustration of us as branches attached to him and drawing life from him as the vine). There are times of special manifestations of the Holy Spirit (mentioned both in the Bible and through history) when he is described as ‘coming upon’ or in terms of wind sweeping in, but these are special times. The day by day and week by week work of the Spirit, often described as ‘walking’, originates in and is mediated through Jesus, as we live in union with him.

Perhaps we should be cautious about introducing habits and terminology that do not exist in the bible and which have not been used by Christians throughout history until the last few years. If we do decide to introduce something novel into the way we talk about God, it would be helpful to folk like me to perhaps explain what we mean by it, or maybe even to check out whether we are getting into a habit that is actually a bad one.

My Favourite Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disciples or Dilettantes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you remember?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three churches

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

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

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

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

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

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