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.
It was 1989, just over thirty years ago, when Spring Harvest had the theme – ‘What influences the Church today?’ and gave it the strapline – Deckchairs on the Titanic. Tens of thousands of Christians attended at the various venues, and there was some stirring preaching which explored how the Church was in danger of getting pre-occupied with secondary issues and ignoring the important ones.
In spite of having a prophetic edge to it, that year was perhaps the beginning of the end of an era. Whilst still large by any reckoning, attendance at bible weeks had peaked, and genuinely charismatic Christianity was on the wane. In the previous couple of decades, there had been clear evidence that what had influenced the Church was in fact God Himself. Many people had been converted, and numbers of churches had entered into spiritual renewal. But things were changing. Existentialism had finally hit ground level with punk music a few years earlier, but punk had also peaked, and the search was on for self-validation in any shape or form that it could be found.
Instead of the Church re-focussing on Jesus and becoming the means of a fresh wave of the Spirit to affect the world, church after church simply soaked in post-punk existentialism and sought to get in step with the self-validating spirit of the age. Now, many churches are no longer the place where men and women are called to come, die to self and live for Jesus, but places where, at the worst, the message has been changed to a call to live for self, love self and help others to do the same.
When the Titanic started sinking, there were two types of heroic activity that came to the fore. The one was shown by crew and passengers, who expended every last ounce of energy to get people into the lifeboats. The other – no less heroic in its own way – was shown by those who accepted that death was inevitable, and who tried to make the last couple of hours of life as comfortable as possible. They did not quite re-arrange the deckchairs, but they played music, sang and served food and drinks as the ship slowly went down.
As this world slowly sinks into an eternal oblivion, disabled in our age by the piercing, chilling collision with existentialist thinking, there is a place for comforting those given up to death – and in its own way it can be quite heroic. Of course we are to feed the hungry or help in any practical way we can, but that is the secondary, not the primary role of the Church. Jesus assigned the job of burying the dead to those who were themselves dead. The Church’s first priority is, and always has been, to get people into the lifeboats.
When Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras around twenty years ago, there was severe flooding which changed the course of the several hundred feet wide Choluteca River. The Choluteca Bridge, which had taken over two years to build and was one of the largest in Latin America, had only just been opened. As the picture shows, it became the bridge with no river, spanning dry land, while the river ran in its new course alongside of it.
When the Welsh Revival had come and gone, there remained a small village chapel, which had carved the times of its services in the stonework above its entrance.
“We meet every Sunday at 11.00am and 6.30pm”
If you went through the entrance however, you would not find a vibrant gathering of God’s people; instead, you would be confronted by heaps of coal. The chapel had been converted into a coal store. The river of God had moved, but the building remained.
Most of us will probably be familiar with buildings which were once used as churches but which have now become warehouses, strip clubs or upmarket homes. A number of the original buildings were founded hundreds of years ago, but some only housed churches a generation or two past. There is nothing much that we can do about such things. A building usually has a purpose, and when that purpose is finished, the building can and should be sold on or demolished.
There are however two situations that are more difficult to come to terms with. One is when the purpose is finished, and the building is maintained as if it has not. The other is when there has been a move of God which resulted in organisational structures, methods and particular ways of doing things, which are maintained when God has stopped working.
In nature, when something dies the body takes a while to decompose. In churches, when they die (and churches do die) either buildings or organisations rarely disappear overnight just because there is no life left in them.
The sight of a bridge with no river and a Welsh chapel with no revival should both be salutary reminders to us. The fact that God moved in our midst yesterday is no guarantee that He still fills the buildings or structures that we retain today.
Featured in the Psychiatrist episode of Fawlty Towers, aired just over forty years ago, this two-word question must be a serious contender for the prize of the world’s shortest joke. If slipped in fast enough, it might have enabled Tim Vine to make a world record of 500 jokes told in an hour instead of which, he has had to be satisfied with a mere 499.
Tim was also funniest joke winner at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival when he dropped in:
“I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I tell you what, never again!”
I don’t know about you, but I am very grateful to God for including humour in our make-up. You will find, if you read my blogs regularly, that I can be a pretty serious bloke, and at times I might get a bit heavy, but I just want to put on record that I also believe humour is a gift we can be thankful for. As with all aspects of our humanity, humour needs redeeming and refining. We won’t always get it right and there will, no doubt, be times we need to repent and times to switch off. But if humour is an integral part of the process of becoming whole – and wholesome – people, we should expect some elements of fun in the learning process.
Excuse me Mr. God,
May I have a new heart please?
I’m afraid this one is rather bruised and battered…it may even be broken…it certainly doesn’t seem to work anymore.
Oh!…Oh! I didn’t realise that. I didn’t realise that I could only have one, that it was irreplaceable.
I would have treated it better. You know, looked after it more If I had realised that it was the only one I was going to get.
Can I really not have another one?
So many, many people have trampled over this one…and I…and I have got it so dirty so, so many, many times.
I don’t think it will last much longer.
Please help me, Mr. God.
I can have your heart?
How will that work?
You will join our hearts together? Your heart is sufficient for both of us?
But..phew… it will mean that I cannot keep mine to myself anymore.
I know that it’s not very good, but it is my heart.
There is no other choice.
My broken, battered, dirty, dying heart, alone,
Your eternal heart, together.
Thank you. I would like to accept your offer.
I once mentioned to a colleague that I thought I might have some new insights that could be relevant to understanding baptism. Heaving a world-weary sigh he said, ‘what possible new thing can you say about baptism?’ (Or it might have been ‘what possible new thing can you say about baptism?’) A fair question either way, to which he obviously thought the answer would be nothing – it has all been said before.
In the 1971 Monty Python film, ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’, the team combined a number of old sketches with new material to receive rave reviews. Half a century earlier, Otto Rohwedder spent over 16 years perfecting a machine to slice bread. It transformed the American baking industry and any invention thereafter had to compete with being the best thing since sliced bread. James Dyson succeeded by re-inventing the vacuum cleaner.
Coming up with something completely different does not mean discarding the old. It means thinking about the old in a new way and being prepared for a resulting fusion that means it will never be the same again.
Forty years ago, whilst at bible college, I had niggling questions about the role of John the Baptist. Jesus declared him the greatest person to have ever lived, which I took to mean (amongst other things) that he accomplished the task God had given him. But in what way did he do this: surely not as a first act warming up the audience? In what way did a message and practice centred on baptism get people ready to hear and understand and respond to the messiah?
I asked two questions. If I were a Jew standing on the banks of the Jordan, with my culture and background, what would I have grasped about Jesus from what John said and did? And, what would have been Jesus’ own understanding about baptism when He gave His followers the command to be disciple makers and baptisers? After all, He did not have Acts or Paul’s letters from which to formulate a theology of baptism.
Since that time I have (hopefully) learned how to write and I have done a great deal of study about baptism. As a result of that, three small books are available to read or buy on this site and there are at least another couple in the pipeline. If you have any interest in baptism, do have a browse.
It is my wife, not I, who is the gardener in our household. However, I do take a little bit of interest in all her hard work, and one of the things that I have noticed is that there can be quite a lot of variety in the packaging of seeds and plants. (I realise it is a bit sad that I am more interested in the packets than what is in them but there you go – we are all different.)
Sometimes when we have been given seeds by a friend, or we have bought seed potatoes from the market, they have been handed to us in a very basic packet, perhaps no more than an old paper bag. Even seeds bought online from a specialist grower can arrive in a plain envelope with only a brief description printed on it. Seeds from a supermarket or garden centre however, are often presented in high quality packets with full colour photographs of what we might end up with in our little garden plot.
One thing we have learned, is that the quality of the flowers or vegetables we grow is not dependent upon the quality of the presentation on the outside of the packet, but upon the quality of the seed inside.
In recent months, I have been looking at a number of local church websites. Quite a lot of them set out a vision of what they hope their church will look like in the near future. If their achievements match their aspirations then Northampton is certainly in for a glorious, even spectacular, period of Christian growth. There could be thousands of new converts, great youth work, authentic expressions of community and possibly revival.
However, just as this year’s harvest in the garden has not been dependent upon the pictures on the seed packets, but on the quality of the seed within them and the ground they were planted in, so too the spiritual harvest we see may bear little relationship to the visions set out on the websites.
It can be good to have great aspirations, but aspiration is not the same as faith, and aspirations alone do not produce fruit and life. The seed and the ground are the keys. Good seed, planted in good soil will produce good fruit.
One of the reasons I browse the local church websites is that we pray for every church in our town on a regular basis (all 150 of them) but I do find it hard to know how to pray for a church that promotes an image of itself, that is at best slightly exaggerated and at worst plainly untrue. We Christians, of all people, should make sure that what is inside the packet does what it says on the outside of the packet.
The offer of a new name, a new life, new citizenship, and forgiveness is not exclusive to Christianity.
For a couple of centuries men who joined the French Foreign Legion received these benefits. Conquering military leaders have offered defeated enemies the opportunity to change sides. Although generally merciless, Gengis Khan sometimes gave captured enemy leaders a choice of death or loyalty. If they chose to join him, he brought them, their families and their tribes into his protection and service.
I sometimes wonder whether we Christians misrepresent God with open offers of unconditional forgiveness through Jesus. It is certainly true that God will forgive any sin, but there are conditions. In one respect, Jesus is no different to any other victorious conqueror who offers forgiveness. He demands a change of sides and a loyalty to the death, which takes priority over family, friends and every other legitimate call on time and money. His call to a lifetime of disciplined service is every bit as serious – and requiring every bit as serious a consideration and response – as that demanded by any other leader.
The benefits of following Jesus are immeasurable, but they are benefits for those who surrender to Him. True, some camp followers, who look for the gleanings of a victory without joining the army, may well pick up some small trophies along the way, but that is usually incidental and not a part of the deal.
The most basic demand on any follower of Jesus is to accept God’s will and relinquish their own. The prayer we call the Lord’s prayer – one of the first things Jesus taught His disciples – sets the priorities for our petitions. It is only after asking that God’s kingdom should come and for His will to be done, that we go on to the request for forgiveness. Even that request has a condition –in turn we are to forgive all others of any offence against ourselves. That is only common sense. If two people come to God, accept His will, and ask for forgiveness, He will be prepared to forgive both of them. If they then refuse to forgive each other, in effect they are refusing His will, which in turn revokes their own request.
I may be a bit naïve, but it seems to me that if we pray that prayer, we cannot really include any opt out clauses. Can it be legitimate to ask God to bring about His will for everyone, except me, the one making the request? Or can we ask God to forgive us, but not anyone we have an issue with? Can you imagine a new recruit to the Legion, staying in bed after an order to be on parade, with the excuse that he only joined for the benefits not the responsibilities?
If we speak about Jesus, and emphasise the love and grace of God, but omit to put an equal emphasis on the need to fully accept His will (which includes unconditional forgiveness for others) then we will find ourselves misrepresenting the gospel. We will also probably find that we spend an awful lot of time trying to explain to any that have responded to our message, why Christianity does not seem to work. But when you think about it, it is fairly obvious. You cannot get much more basic than the Lord’s prayer. We may gloss over what it says, but it is surely a bit unreasonable to expect God to do so as well.
Our fifteen-month old granddaughter is moving on to her third pair of shoes. The problem is that her feet keep growing but her shoes do not grow with her. It is the simple, but ever-present problem of life refusing to conform to fixed structures. It is not that shoes are wrong. Far from it – they can be extremely helpful and useful to both protect and enable. However, if they are not changed to keep up with the feet they are designed for, they end up being harmful and disabling.
I am not certain how it has happened, but there is a widespread, possibly universal, fallacy, that suggests if we just get the right church structure God will accommodate spiritual life to fit into it. That is of course nonsense, both in theory and practice.
When Jesus gave final instructions to His followers, their principle task was to make disciples and these learners (a simple and accurate meaning of disciples) were to learn from Jesus Himself. Through the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised to every one of His followers, He would tailor make a course of instruction for each person. In that way He would build His Church and even the gates of hell would be unable to prevail against it.
However, somehow we have got our knickers in a twist (if you’ll pardon the expression, but it is the most accurate I can think of). Instead of us making learners and bringing them to Jesus for Him to fit into His Church – which He would continually adjust to protect and enable everyone who comes to Him, we try to build churches ourselves, by making people our disciples and squeezing them into the structure we have created. Instead of standing against hell, the result tends to be damaged, disabled and disillusioned Christians who can barely stand against anything.
It is not a question of form versus spontaneity: either, may be helpful or harmful. The issue is whether the Church is serving and nurturing life or whether the life is having to fit into the mould of the Church (whether a formal or a spontaneous one).
There tend to be two scenarios. If people are not live, Spirit filled followers of Jesus, take away the mould and they are likely to disintegrate. If people are truly born again and manifest genuine life, and are then squeezed into a particular mould (any mould), the likelihood is that after a few weeks, months or even years, they will lose their zeal and their first love for Jesus.
The only Church that will not be shaken, indeed which cannot be shaken, is the Church built by Jesus. One of the reasons God shakes things, is to reveal what Jesus has built and what we have built. Heaven help us if we then try and rebuild what God has shaken down.
We are of course, called to be co-workers with Jesus, so we do have a part in building the Church. But the blueprint He is using is in heaven and He will only let us in on it a little bit at a time, because it will change with every new person He brings into union with Himself. This is no more than common sense. When a child is born into a family, the family changes. Sleep patterns change, meal times may change, allocation of finances will change. The concept of family life remains, but the outworking of that concept will vary with each new member and from family to family.
Once we believe that we have got the pattern, or that our particular little church is the one He has chosen to demonstrate how it should be done, that is probably the point at which we have actually lost the plot.
The Church will be glorious: a bride so radiant that it will demonstrate the fullness of Christ through all eternity. Jesus will accomplish that: I am pretty certain we are not able to.
I do a fair bit of it, but in spite of my advanced years, I still feel I am only a learner. However, I am at a stage now where I am not looking for more advice but for more life. When I worked in a Christian bookshop I sold hundreds of books on prayer. I am fairly confident that some of them were good, but it did seem that a lot of them involved techniques and I no longer need techniques but reality.
In spite of possible protestations to the contrary, my wife snores. Not too loudly, but very definitely. The other night I woke up and struggled to get back to sleep, so I just listened to her snoring. It was a positive experience, I hesitate to use the term lovely experience, but it came pretty close to it. It was just the deep sense of being without doing – no agenda, nothing to achieve, simply being alive with another person. The interesting thing, was that as I lay there listening to Catherine, I started praying. Nothing profound, but a few words of thanks and praise and a few requests for one or two people who I know are struggling, and also, surprisingly, a deep sense of wellbeing as I lay there just being alive with God. I know that God does not sleep, so I guess that means He does not snore either, but if He did, I thought I would enjoy the experience of listening to Him – being, with no agenda, nothing to achieve, simply being alive with the one who made me.
I do not think it is possible to reproduce moments like that to order. It may never happen again, so I am certainly not going to write a book on how to improve your prayer life by listening to someone snoring. If it does happen again, I will welcome it and savour it, but if it does not, that is fine. For although I am not very good at praying, God is actually helping me and I trust Him to create small lessons like this in which He will teach me.
On the other hand, one of the other things I am learning about prayer, is that some aspects of it are quite hard work, involving research, compiling lists, and then (much harder) praying through the lists on a regular basis.
Although I am not a particular good prayer, I am quite at ease about the matter. I have agreed with God that I will respond if He teaches me and so, little by little, in a wide variety of ways I am getting better as He gives me small insights and opportunities. Sometimes I resist, and occasionally I rebel and switch off completely – no more lessons today – I just want to indulge myself. But He is patient, kind and firm, and I come back, repent, and we start again. That is the advantage of living by receiving His life – it is possible to work things through. With a technique, you just have to try harder – and I for one cannot do that anymore.
Have you ever caught the scent of roses carried by a light breeze on a warm summer’s day? Or maybe come downstairs to the evocative smell of bacon frying in the pan?
Have you ever tingled at the first few bars of your favourite piece of music – whether classical, rock or simply Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’?
Have you had your breath taken away by a stunning painting or a sunrise on a clear cold morning? Maybe the touch of pure silk or the taste of an exotic food quickens your pulse and pleasures your senses.
We can be grateful to God for the enjoyment of these experiences that bring pleasure to our minds and bodies. He has given them to us to enjoy as part of our humanity, and they are enjoyed by Christians and unbelievers alike. Though created directly by God, or else indirectly through the gifts that God has given us, they are not actually God Himself, nor are they spiritual. They are not designed to stimulate us spiritually, but to relate primarily to the physical and soulish aspects of our being. When appreciated and enjoyed correctly, they are positive, and enhance our lives as created beings on God’s earth.
All of these things come from the outside, impressing themselves upon us. They may stimulate our mind, especially our memories, and they may give cause for thanksgiving, which we then mediate back to God through our whole beings, body soul and spirit. But the things themselves never become spiritual. Things are not spiritual but material. It is living beings who are spiritual.
The ongoing temptation for the Israelites, was to copy the nations around them and attribute divinity, God’s spirituality, to things made of wood, gold, silver and precious stones. Many of these things would have been quite beautiful, however it was not their beauty that was the problem, but the fact that they were given a spiritual value when they were merely the product of human hands.
The temptation to idolatry, which faced the Israelites may have changed its form a little, but it has not gone away. Any time that we attribute spirituality to something that is merely material or soulish, we take the first step towards idolatry.
God is Spirit and He is looking for people who will worship Him in Spirit and truth. (The Greek word for truth can equally well be translated as ‘reality’.) Jesus made it quite clear that when we drink from Him, the Spirit will flow out from us. True worship of the Father, real worship of the Father, always originates in the hearts of those who have been drinking from Jesus. It flows forth from within, unaided by any stimulus from without. When we rely on a ‘thing’ to enable us to worship, whether that thing be a candle, incense, great architecture or the latest Bethel or Hillsong music, we may find ourselves indulging in idolatry.
Does this mean that candles, incense, architecture and music are wrong? Not at all. Very few things are wrong in themselves. A knife can be used by a surgeon to heal or by a murderer to kill, and it is the motive and action of the person using it that makes it good or bad.
Rightly used, candles, incense, architecture and music can be a great blessing – but they can also be idols. The test as to which of the two they are, is very simple. Can we worship in Spirit and reality without them? If we are denied any external aids, are we still able to express worship to our Father from the resources within us? If we are able to worship God without anyone setting ‘the atmosphere’ then we can be pretty sure that we are not toying with idolatry. However, if we need something to create a mood, rather than merely appreciating such a thing when it happens to occur, then we should to be careful we do not shift our reliance from God alone to a religious substitute.
If we are worshipping from the life within, then it may well be that we choose to express that worship through something, and that something may include music, candles, dance, flags, incense or many other things. As we have said, these things are not wrong in themselves. The crucial issue is: are we using them to try and create worship – that is something from the outside stimulating us – or are we using them to express worship – that is as a vehicle for what is coming unaided from within us?
God created us to express His life, which is Spirit, through our spirits, souls and bodies. He wants us to be whole people, offering our whole lives to Him. But the right order is always spirit, soul, body. When something originates in our soul life or our physical life and we try and approach God on that basis, we are likely to try and use soulish or physical means to do it and that will almost inevitably take us into idolatry.
Many charismatics in the ‘contemporary’ churches have looked disparagingly upon the ‘smells and bells’ of the high churches. What they often do not realise is that the use of music to create a mood for worship is essentially the same as the use of candles, incense and bells to do the same. They both try and create something spiritual from something soulish and physical, and it simply cannot be done.
What happens may well be enjoyable. It may well create an experience. It may involve sensations and be interwoven with a deep desire for God, but it rarely goes beyond that to become part of the ongoing fibre of our lives. It is on the same level as the smell of a rose or frying bacon, pleasurable, but purely temporal. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I have been in meetings where the music has been amazing, people have had physical manifestations of all sorts of things and some have even seen gold dust in the air, but the next day, the next week, the next year, virtually everyone’s lives at work, home or school are the same as they were beforehand.
Because real worship is rooted in sacrifice, it will involve real cost and never be trite or frivolous. The fruit of it will last and become foundational in us, so that there will be effective change in our lives. The change may perhaps be slow and gradual, but it will be real and ongoing.