Friday, June 30, 2006

Touching skin

Our church, during a mid week meeting, has been working through an intercession study course aimed at making prayer more effective and powerful. On Wednesday we were learning how to listen to God. Patricia King in her teaching had been encouraging us that God talks to us – that He wants to talk to us and that we all have the ability to hear from Him.

After a short time of worship we settled down to listen. I usually go into panic mode simply because what comes straight into my mind is “What if God talks to everyone else in the room, but He doesn’t talk to me!” I can usually think of a million things that would disqualify me from taking part!

Well, thoughts were going through my head, mostly about what God and I had been talking about from my quiet times – whether they were God directed, I will leave that up to you to decide.

Last weekend I popped into the City Forum. It is a message board specifically for Christian ladies, sparked off by a Faithwriter’s lady. I used to keep up to date with the Bible Study there last year. They are reading through the early chapters of Numbers. The Levites were assigned to help the priests with the running of the tabernacle. When it came down to moving the campsite along the route to the Promised Land, they were assigned things to carry. They didn’t just line up outside the tabernacle, but there was a list of their names, and each person, by name, was given a specific item to take. Each person was hand picked and their specific strengths and weaknesses taken into consideration. Who knows best, but God, what we can carry and what we can’t? There is a verse that says that God does not give us the things that we cannot bear that comes to mind. What God gives us to carry is not so heavy that we are broken by it.

OK – so that was what I “heard” from God. We didn’t have time to explore the specifics so we were encouraged to take it back to God and ask for the details! This is kind of mind-blowing! This is where God really “touches skin”.

What came across when I talked it over with God was firstly the word “Protection”. A lot of the instructions God gives at the start of Numbers are down to God’s desire to protect his people. Living in the midst of them is dangerous for them – He is holy, and they are not. They are dealing with sensitive dynamite and things have to be correctly handled. God assigning certain items to specific people is a matter of protection. It is fair to say that some of us have an unrealistic view of our abilities. We are not as strong as we think we are. The temptation for us is to take on board more than we can handle and we get burnt out. For some of us, it may be the opposite – we are actually much stronger than we think, but we rule ourselves out and we never really get to exercise our spiritual muscles properly. By God assigning specific tasks He gets the best out of us.

So the anointing that God gives for a task is not haphazard and random, but carefully orchestrated. The things that I do must be the things that God has set me apart to do and not the stuff I think I am capable of doing. They are the things that no one else has been assigned to do and they are matched to my strengths and weaknesses.

This is when God got really personal! Suppose as a Levite you turn up at the tabernacle. Every time you have moved camp you have been given things to carry. Sometimes it’s the same item you are carrying. Sometimes it’s something a little different – but you always have something to do. Suppose that one time you turn up and the priest turns you away – there is nothing for you to carry! Suppose the next time you turn up, you get turned away – again there is nothing for you to carry. And perhaps a third time, and a fourth time. What questions go through your mind? What do you think about? Do you automatically think – “Oh wonderful, I get to help my wife pack and move our stuff.” Or “I was really needing a rest!” or more likely perhaps, “What is wrong with me? Why am I being passed over here? Have I done something to offend the priests, or God?” The man has got used to doing stuff, but suddenly, he feels like he is being made redundant!

See this protection thing – it is not just a physical thing of not being given too heavy a burden to carry. I think it is also a spiritual thing. We have a tendency to measure value according to what a person does. We perhaps measure our value on the basis of what we contribute or the part we play in the church setting. If we do nothing, we think we have no value. If we had a job, and then it gets taken off us and given to someone else, we jump to a conclusion perhaps that the other person must be better than we are. Maybe this is just me and everyone else is a lot less complex! The world moves on whether I carry something or not – I am not the centre of the universe. God can work without me and he chooses to do so at times. Learning just to “be” and not to “do” is so important.

Are you still with me? Let’s forget about the “suppose”! The phrase I am playing with now is “touching skin” – when something touches you up close and it is not just theory or head knowledge. Just recently our church meetings have moved into the town centre. I don’t know how many weeks we have been there. I am aware that since moving into the town centre I have not been invited to lead worship. There is a small trickle of thoughts along the line of “What is wrong with me? Why am I being passed over here? Have I done something to offend someone?” It is a very small trickle that I don’t give space to because I know that there is nothing wrong, that I am not being passed over and that had I offended anyone, I would have been told. But it is a challenge! I feel like the Levite who turns up expecting to carry something and gets sent home empty handed. I am used to doing something and not just being something.

The challenge for me is to enjoy the rest and the space I am being given. There is space particularly to explore what else God has got in mind for me – that I am not limited to leading worship or preaching in a Sunday meeting setting – but something Melanie-sized and shaped in the wider setting of church in the community. It is kind of exciting – it is scary too!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

World Cup misery

This year I have watched more than my usual dose of football. In the staff room sweepstake I picked out Croatia for the World Cup. They have not managed to move into the next round. I watched all their matches quite faithfully and also picked up one or two of the players’ names. One night they were playing, I went as far as finding a recipe for a Croatian beef stew to cook that evening. I think I did my stuff!

However, they failed to do their stuff. They played brilliantly against Brazil, but scored no goals and lost 1-0. They played against Japan, but with few sparks igniting and drew that match. They lost to Australia. I have to confess that I stopped watching the game quite early on. They were committing some fairly outrageous fouls. It went beyond hanging onto jumpers and tripping up the opposition – it was appalling. As I told my fourth years boys the following day – I can’t abide bad behaviour whether it is in the classroom or on the football field. They replied, “It’s a man’s game!” and “It’s a contact sport!” but even so…I still don’t think that excuses a lack of sportsmanship.

I am feeling quite convicted though of my abandonment of Croatia! I was reading this morning in Psalm 106 of Israel’s list of appalling behaviour towards God. Theirs was not the holding on to jumpers and tripping folks up kind of bad behaviour. The Israelites involved themselves in all a huge catalogue of extreme wickedness including sacrificing their children to idols! They were really bad – but in verse 44 God does not abandon them. It says that He had pity. He heard their cries. He remembered the covenant He made. He remembered the unfailing love he had for them.

I am convicted that I often tie in support and encouragement for people with behaviour. I am like the governments of so many countries – I will give aid as long as the man on the receiving end maintains a good human rights record! It is natural inclination I suppose.

But God is not like that! Unfailing love is exactly what it says! God’s love is not conditional upon good behaviour. He does not love me because I am good. He does not love me more if I am very good, as opposed to just good! He doesn’t cease to love me when I am bad. Disappointed perhaps, but He never withdraws his love.

At the end of the day, I supported Croatia because I drew their name out of a hat. I didn’t look at all the other teams and deliberately choose Croatia. I didn’t come to love them!

God chose me and that makes all the difference!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Promise keeping

I was reading Leviticus 27 today. It was all about making vows - making voluntary vows, and then regretting making the vow and wanting to get whatever you had given back. There was a fixed penalty of an added 20% on top of the value of the goods if a person chose to renege on a vow - that they had to pay more than the good were worth. If they tried to do a swap with a lesser item - they lost both things. If they regretted giving their number one bull and wanted to do a swap for their number two bull, they lost both bulls! And then there were just some things they just couldn't get back at all!

We all make promises - to pray more regularly, to read so many chapters of the Bible each day, to witness more often. When we make the vows we are being sincere. We have no intention of going back on what we promise to do. But then "real life" kicks in. We have only so much time and so many things to do and the prayers and the Bible reading get edged out and we just can't seem to get up enough confidence to speak to someone about our faith. Then we end up feeling guilty - so we make another promise!

There are a couple of parables that come to mind about counting the cost - the man that builds a tower and runs out of money before he can finish, and the king that goes to war and then decided he doesn't really have a great army and thinks about surrendering.

The parable of the tower really sticks in my mind. I lived in Cyprus for a number of years, teaching in a church school in Limassol. Living there was like living on a huge building site There were always buildings going up. It was common to build another level on top of your home to accommodate your son or daughter when they were married - so nothing ever really looked finished.

In particular there was a half finished hotel called the King Richard Hotel. The man began building it. There were the bare bones of a couple of dozen or so floors. Then he ran out of money and the unfinished building became a city landmark - but not a hotel! The year I left, some corporation bought the building and completed it - the bottom floor was given over to Woolworth's - the biggest store in the city at the time!

God knows what we are like about promises. In Leviticus 27 He made provision for the promise breakers - but he doesn't make it easy provision. It comes at a cost. I know what I am like about promises too! I always have second and third and fourth doubts about jumping in with something because I know that perhaps in a few weeks I will loose the enthusiasm and it will become a chore or a duty. Maybe that is not very "faith" inspired - maybe I just need to stop listening to the voices!! But there is this sense of knowing your history! Reading Leviticus 27, does that mean I should never make the promises in the first place? There is sense where I am called to live in the present tense - not worrying now whether in the future I will go back on my promise, because my past history tells me I will. God gives me all the resources I need, so I shouldn't have to go back on my promises!

Interestingly enough, on a preaching CD, Patricia King spoke about "seasons" of things. At the time she was in a season of prayer and felt quite able to pray eight hours in the day! She recognised that it was a "season" and not a life long commitment. Maybe that is the way ahead - stress that it is for a season!

God is a promise keeper! We are to imitate God and be promise keepers too. If we are reflecting the character of God and do not keep our promises or vows, it is like saying to people around us that perhaps the God we follow doesn't keep his promises either!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Wine into water?

I was listening to Radio 2 in the car this morning. The news reports had finished and Terry Wogan was commenting on the last item. Apparently Europe is producing more wine than people want to drink. Just like there are butter mountains and cheese mountains, there are also wine lakes! There is a surplus of produce. It seems that most Europeans are drinking less wine, and those that aren't - like the British, Irish and Swedes - are turning to Australia, or South Africa or South America for their wines. The government wants to pay wine makers to dig up some Europe's vineyards.

Terry commented that if only they could pipe the wine over to this country, fill the empty reservoirs, all that would be needed would be someone to turn the wine into water and we would all be happy!

My immediate thought was that many people would not get the reference. Terry’s comment was turning a biblical story on its head. Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding.

I can’t remember when I first realised that cultural references that I take for granted are not known anymore. I remember teaching a unit of work on Jesus parables. This was way back in the 1980s. I quite confidently asked the pupils to make a list of the parables Jesus taught. Two thirds of the pupils were from Indian families, and were Hindus or Sikhs, but surprisingly enough they were the ones that could do it! The rest of the class looked at me with blank faces. Parables? Jesus they knew about, but parables were a mystery.. After a lot of crowd manipulation, rephrasing and leading questions we managed to come up with the Good Samaritan! Someone may have suggested the Sower, and I think the Prodigal Son was levered out from deepest darkest memories!

I don’t think the word for this is “sad”. I think it is more serious than sadness! I was reading at the end of 2 Kings where Josiah’s priests, are given the instructions to collect money to repair the temple. When they start the renovations, they find hidden in a wall the Book of the Law – a record of God’s covenant. Josiah is appalled when he reads the book – appalled not just that they hadn’t been doing it, but they hadn’t even been aware that they were supposed to be doing it!

How do these things slip through our fingers? A friend and I were talking last week about the need to remember important things that God had said to us. For the Jews they did it tying boxes onto their foreheads or nailing little boxes onto their door-posts. The boxes contained a verse of scripture spoken by God.

What do we do to remember? The alternative to remembering is forgetting. What do we do to make sure that we don’t forget? I think part of it is simply talking about it. Isn’t that what witnessing is all about. There is a verse somewhere In Philomen (she says hesitantly) about sharing the gospel is good for us because it makes us more sure of exactly what it is that we believe. It strengthens our faith.

Joe and I are avid watchers of “Lost”. There have been one or two episodes where genuine Christian faith has formed a part of the story line with people praying and talking about their spirituality – not New Age mysticism, but the realities of believing in God when the world and reason say otherwise.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Deep fried caramel wafers

An interesting newspaper article cropped up last week. I have never tried it myself but some Scottish fish and chip shops sell battered deep fried Mars bars. The sound of it doesn't appeal to me at all.

Since Mars bars got renamed "Believe" for the World Cup, and are supposed to encourage us to believe that England will win, sales have plummeted in Scotland! The English don't really understand why the Scots don't get behind them seeing as Scotland are not in it.

Since deep fried Mars bars, or Believe bars, are all but impossible to sell, some chippies have been looking at other things to deep fry instead. Tunnocks Caramel Wafers fit the bill and are not quite so sweet.

It may seem rather petty. It is just a name. Take off the wrapper and it is just a Mars bar. The ingredients haven't changed at all. The colour scheme of the wrapper hasn't changed either - it is just that one word "Believe" and everything that is associated with it.

Personally I don't believe England will win - I don't want them to win because in the school sweepstake I picked out Croatia! I don't think eating a Mars bar or not eating one is going to a make a difference. I also don't think that believing that they will win means that they will win.

I am not sure whether there is any honour in refusing to buy a Mars bar, deep fried or not because of England's World Cup campaign, but is a matter compromising deeply held beliefs for many people. Not compromising is important, but the issue has to be a important one and I am not sure that it is - not for me anyway.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The transformation process

When you are a part of a small church, there are only so many planned meetings that are possible throughout the week, but we have always been encouraged to use our own initiative for the "unplanned" meetings. If there is something on our hearts that we wish to pursue, then we will get all the support we need to do it, but it is up to us to do it!

A few weeks ago I spoke, quite passionately apparently, about the need to be transformed. The whole process of the Christian life should be to make me more like Jesus. Through every encounter that I have with God - through worship, through His word, through prayer - every encounter - I should be changing. I shouldn't be struggling year in and year out with the same problems. The rest of the church should be involved in my transformation. It says somewhere in scripture about iron sharpening iron. If I am not being transformed then something is wrong somewhere. I had been reading about one of the kings in the Old Testament. He had made an attempt to repair the temple, the external visible part of worship, but without there being an invisible change on the inside - he did nothing about the shrines on the hills and under the trees - it was not effective. As a church we have been so pleased about the move into the town centre. It has given us a fresh vision - but that is just the externals. Moving the church from one place to another physically needs to accompany a move spiritually to a deeper relationship with God. I am not saying that is not happening because it is!

Afterwards one of my friends came up to me and asked if we might study the Bible together. I brought the study books and we met on Thursday for the first time.

I am sure that you have those times when you never realised you had lost something until you found it again! I didn't realise just how much I needed to come to the Bible with other people and simply talk about what I had learned. I read the Bible daily and I study to apply what I learn - this Thursday was just another planet altogether! There is one thing talking through what you learn with God during a quiet time and another thing talking it over with people.

The study book was about women in the Old Testament. "Women" orientated books are normally avoided by me, not because I am not a woman, but sometimes they focus on things that to some extent are irrelevant to me. I don't consider myself a home builder - that is probably why my home looks like a pigsty! I don't have children to bring up. I chose the study because my friend, who is a young woman, needs that kind of teaching. She is on the cusp of all these things!

I seriously didn't know just how much I needed this study. I have a tendency towards self sufficiency. I don't always expect people to help, I don't ask often enough, I just get on with the business, and I don't always realise just how much I am struggling. Being self sufficient is not what Jesus intends - that is not "body" thinking.

I learned so much on Thursday - about the life of Eve, who I thought I knew anyway but didn't really! The ways that other people look at things really threw a light on areas that I had never thought about! This was not just head stuff - but life stuff! I leaned so much about the lives of my friends. Quite often the questions in the study were just jumping off points to share heart. I know what to pray about for these women because of what they shared - not more guessing! I learned a lot about myself too.

It could have been a very cerebral meeting. We are intelligent women. It was not a meeting of heads and brains dissecting the word - but three friends wanting to get to know God better. I have much to put into practice!