Thursday, November 27, 2008

Don't Call Me Prudence

One of my favourite films is “Support Your Local Sheriff” with James Garner. The love interest is a rather clumsy woman called Prudence, who is anything but prudent.

The dictionary defines prudence as “wise in handling practical matters; exercising good judgment or common sense.” I think my mother was prudent in not calling me Prudence, because quite often I am anything but prudent.

I am thinking about prudence because this morning I was reading Amos 5 and came across verse 13 “Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.”

The chapter is about the rich trampling on the poor and denying them justice. Righteousness was “cast down to the ground”. Courts were rife with bribery and corruption.

Good judgement and common sense led people to keep quiet during evil times. When is it the right time to be prudent and keep quiet? When is it not the right time? Amos obviously wasn’t being prudent because he was speaking out against the evil doers of his day. Maybe prudence wasn’t an option for him anyway, because God’s message pressed heavily on his heart. Maybe given the choice to speak or keep quiet, Amos might have chosen to be prudent!

I suppose there is a time when, like casting your pearls before pigs, you know that not only is it not going to make any difference to how anyone behaves. Your words, and perhaps you yourself, will end up getting trampled on. Is that sufficient reason to say nothing? Does that count as self-protection, or cowardice, or prudence or what?

I encounter some mildly “evil times” in my work place – very mild episodes. On the Richter Scale they would probably not register at all in comparison to ethnic cleansing or genocide. I have wondered whether I just ought to keep quiet. It seems at times that my expressing any opinions about things just makes it worse and achieves very little. I prefer to think that my words might be chipping away, little by little, and my silence would be even worse!

Who was it that said that all it needs for evil men to prevail is for good men to say or do nothing? Or something along those lines.

Prudence, if it is silence when times are evil, is not really an option.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mr Angry

Amos 4:6 – 11 makes for really heavy reading.

“ I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town…I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away….Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew…I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword… "I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah…yet you have not returned to me," declares the LORD.

This is not a case of bad things happening randomly and God making use of the circumstances to bring about someone’s good. This is not about Satan doing the bad stuff to people and God using it to bring about his purposes. This is not about other people doing bad stuff and God getting the blame. God took responsibility for each of the disasters that overtook the nation. They were to be left in no doubt that none of it was random, none of it was caused by Satan, none of it was caused by other people…it was all caused by God! This is not even God allowing the bad stuff to happen. There is nothing passive about any of the verbs here.

I am having difficulty with this God! This is an angry God.

I was talking with a group of young people the other day about whether parents should be allowed to smack their children. Being as most of them were still of smackable age, almost to a child they disagreed. One lone hand up insisted that sometimes it was the only way to get the message across, and sometimes it came as a last resort when all other attempts at correction had failed. Another voice argued about what happens when the message of the smack doesn’t get heeded. Do you just smack harder? And then harder still? And then what comes next?

I am not sure that I have ever felt God’s smack, or if I have been smacked, whether I recognised it as a smack.

Do you just wipe out these paragraphs of scripture and say that God doesn’t do that any more? If he doesn’t do it any more, why did he do it then? If he doesn’t do it any more, why not?

I know that Jesus has entered the scene. With Jesus comes complete and total forgiveness. We are made right with God in a way that was not possible for people in the time of Amos. We have the ability to please God in a way that the people at the time of Amos didn’t have. I stand in Christ. Christ pleases God, and I in Christ please God.

Does that mean that there isn’t an angry God any longer? I don’t think so. I am just not sure what I do think about it all.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

It's All in the Answer

What we say when we are asked a question, or how we respond to a challenge says much about ourselves. I have just been preparing a word for church today based on the parable of the tenants and the vineyard.

You can read it in Mark 12:1-12. Towards the end of the story, after telling the hearers about the tenants beating up the servants, sending them away empty handed, then later on killing them and eventually killing the beloved son, Jesus asks the question, "What then will the owner of the vineyard do? In Mark’s gospel it is Jesus that provides the answer, “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others”. Matthew has a different rendering here which I prefer, Jesus asks the question and the hearers provide the answer “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."

What they say reveals their hearts…not God’s heart. We are bent on revenge and people getting their just rewards. God isn’t. God doesn’t think like we do. If he thought like we do, he wouldn’t have sent his Son.

Friday evening I was chilling out. It was the end of a rather busy week. There was nothing on the To Do list apart from the usual ironing and housework that rarely gets done! There was a phone call from a friend asking me whether, seeing as I was leading the Sunday meeting, I wanted him to bring his guitar and lead worship. What? Me? Leading the Sunday meeting? This was the first I heard of it. The little bird that told him hadn’t told me.

The gauntlet was thrown down! Obviously the little bird thought she had asked me. Usually I can come up with the distant memory of a vague conversation weeks ago, and I can usually hunt through a half dozen note books and find it written down. Not this time. There had been no conversation, no note…nothing. I hadn’t been asked.

I usually know about these things weeks in advance and have time to think and to pray. It ends up being the Friday night when I start to sift through my thoughts and bring order.

“So what’s the difference?” asked God. “Had you known two weeks ago, it would have still been this evening that you would have sat down and written something out.”

“They never asked me!” was my stubborn reply. I can be small minded and hard hearted at times and I suppose I wanted my tantrum. Not being asked. Presumed upon. Taken for granted. All these things were what I wanted to dwell upon.

“OK, so they didn’t ask,” said God, “So I am asking. Will you speak on Sunday?”

You can’t really hold out against God! I agreed to have a look at the topic, read through the assigned verses and think about it. And then God shared his perspective on it all and we came up with a word for the meeting.

I just wish that I hadn’t gone through the whole tantrum part of it. I was challenged that I was doing the same thing that the tenants in the story were doing. The vineyard was never their own and yet they wanted to claim it for themselves. Everything that makes me able to share a word on Sunday – the study habits, the access to books and materials, the time and concentration to meditate, the skills to communicate the truths I find – none of it is my own. I can’t claim anything and then demand that I choose when and where and to whom I will share my insights. It’s not mine, so I should not be treating it as mine.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fit to Teach

It is amazing the amount of people I have got to know over the last couple of weeks just by being in the main building at work and not secreted away in some prefab.

I have learned that one of my colleagues is a tattoo addict! She got her first tattoo for her thirtieth birthday and has not looked back since. Her advice to me, as if it will ever be needed is never to get words tattooed because the ink eventually slips (whatever that means) and the letters shift.

Another colleague does judo. I think that might come in really handy with some of the people I encounter during the day!

I sat next to a lady at lunchtime who is an accordion player! She is one of those people who can pick up any musical instrument and play a tune on it. She doesn’t like brass instruments much, but she can play them.

I shared with her that for while I had piano lessons from a friend. What I didn’t say was that I sometimes led worship in church, and felt that perhaps being able to play a musical instrument might help if I wanted to be able to write worship songs. My friend was told by her own music teacher, that teaching someone else was a good way to learn oneself! I didn’t really need to be motivated, I was keen anyway, but she was teaching a young boy at the same time and had introduced glittery stickers. She thought that the offer of a sticker would make me practice harder or whatever. Suddenly getting the sticker seemed to take precedence. I suppose that it worked to some extent. I stopped messing around on the piano and practiced really hard – but it was the messing around, making up silly melodies that I really enjoyed. Once it became hard work, I got de-motivated! The pressure of getting the sticker got too much.

The work colleague told me about a particular student she taught some twenty years ago. She lived in Falkirk, I think. It was somewhere not far from Edinburgh.

A friend of hers asked if she would be willing to teach her boy. It turned out that the boy was just four years old, so refused thinking that he was too young. The friend asked her to come to the house and meet the boy before she made up her mind.

It must have been a big house because one of the rooms had a grand piano in it. They boy was s child genius on the piano. Move over Mozart! She recognised his potential and he first thought was she couldn’t teach him. It wasn’t a case of there was nothing that she could teach the young Mozart, but she didn’t want to teach him any bad habits! He had too much potential to be damaged by a bad teacher – which she wasn’t by any means.

She phoned up a music academy in Edinburgh to ask at what age they took on children. Six years of age was the minimum. She couldn’t persuade anyone that he was worth the effort. They did, however, give her lots of advice of how to teach him. The most important thing was not so much the technique but making sure that he stayed interested. As it was, he has a very severe asthmatic illness and was often at home. He spent the day playing the piano.

The academy in Edinburgh eventually enrolled him not long after his fifth birthday. He went on to be a concert pianist, played a million other instruments, released albums and all the rest!

To be involved in part of that has got to be good!

I was thinking about her hesitation to get involved with him because she recognised his potential and didn’t want to cause him any damage. To teach him bad habits, or to use an approach to teaching that would turn him off piano playing for life was a heavy responsibility. In the end, armed with all the help from the Edinburgh academy, she went for it.

I think of the responsibility of being a teacher in the church setting. Every child of God has the potential to be a world changer. Perhaps some people never get to be the world changer they were meant to be because some other people taught them badly.

I don’t think that anyone deliberately sets out to bring a sermon, or a word, that is designed to mislead or deceive another, but sometimes there is a vibrant truth that gets watered down to make it palatable to as many as possible. It may not be bad teaching, but it doesn’t qualify as good teaching either!

If we are looking for a people of God leading powerful lives, it has to come because the word of God was preached powerfully to them.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Deal or No Deal

I know that my husband enjoys watching “Deal or No Deal”, the programme hosted by Noel Edmunds where contestants have to guess which box contains £250,000 and trick the banker into buying the box they have in front of them for more than it is worth.

Yesterday I decided to do a pile of ironing. I am not sure that I actually chose to do the ironing – it was that or traipse around the house in the buff! The bottom of the pile has not been exposed for months.

The lady that was in the hot seat was a fairly elderly Asian lady. She was so calm and unwound up that it was very different from most of the contestants. Some quiz shows drive me to distraction when the contestants explain why they reject certain answers or choose others. This lady was not one of those. She just chose one number after another, quite calmly, and politely and no matter the amount of money she exposed – the big red number or the small blue ones - she seemed to be unflustered.

She had decided right from the start that she didn’t want the £250,000 box. It was far too much money for anyone to win. For her, it would be a burden to have that much money. Noel Edmunds tried to persuade her that she could so all sorts of good things with it, but her reply was that she could do just as many good things with a lot less.

The game progressed and she seemed to have lots of the big numbers left and just a few small ones. It was a gambler’s game. The £250,000 was still in place with six boxes left to choose. One box was a blue one, the rest were all red. Then there was the banker’s phone call. He offered a deal of £30,000.

Noel Edmunds reminded her that when she had been asked how much money she would like to win, in an early questionnaire I presume, she had said £30,000. Presuming she would pick the blue box in the next round, the minimum she would walk away with was going to be £20,000 – but the £250,000 was still in the game.

He was offering her exactly what she had asked for, but yet there was the chance of getting much more than that.

Everyone was giving her advice on what to do. “Play on” seemed to be the general consensus.

Behind my ironing board I was shouting “Deal!”

To my mind there was more than £30,000 at stake, and more than £250,000 too. This was about someone’s integrity. She might walk away with the top prize, but it would cost her too much.

Without any fuss at all she said, “Deal.” She took only what she had asked for and turned her back on the big prize! The next box she chose was the wee blue number and the banker said that he would have gone up to £50,000, but she just smiled. She didn’t have the £250,000 in her box, just a mere £20,000 so she beat the banker.

She stood against the temptation to be greedy and take more than she had asked for. Her integrity was not worth £250,000!

We seem to live in a world where people grab and snatch and never seem to be satisfied. It was refreshing to see someone who was different.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Missed Encounter

I had a dream a number of months ago. It was a third person dream much like watching a film. The man in my dream was very much a down and out. He was just one step up from homelessness having just been given a flat to live in. He had suffered one disappointment after another and was just about surviving. He might have even spent time in prison. He wasn’t a bad man, just really down on his luck.

There was a talent competition in the town centre and my man (I don’t think he had a name) was persuaded by some of his friends to have a go. He had the most amazing singing voice and had the audience wiping tears from their eyes.

I am not sure if he won the competition but he went back to his flat totally unaware that he was being followed. The person following him knocked on the door and as soon as the door was open swiftly got himself inside.

“This is not the way it’s supposed to be,” he told the man. “This is not the life you are supposed to be living.”

He went on to explain that an encounter that should have set his life on a different course was prevented from happening. Some one stuck their oar in and shipwrecked his life. The homelessness, the prison sentence, the deep sense of failure – all these things were not part of the plan for his life.

I don’t know whether the missed encounter was with a specific person, or an event that he was supposed to attend, but the result was he never got to be the person he was supposed to be.

I was reminded of the dream when I read a few of the verses from John 1:35-39

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, "Look, the Lamb of God!" When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, "What do you want?" They said, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying? "Come," he replied, "and you will see." So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.

Imagine how different their lives might have been if they had not encountered Jesus. If they hadn’t been listening to John, if they hadn’t followed Jesus, if they hadn’t been curious enough to know a little bit more about him, if they hadn’t taken up the invitation to come and see, if they hadn’t spent the rest of the day with him – they would have missed the path that was planned for them.

Sometimes we think so much about the things that we add into our lives that don’t always do is any good. Sometimes it is what we fail to add into our lives that causes the most damage.

I wonder what I would say in answer to Jesus question “What do you want?”

I wonder how I would have responded to Jesus’ challenge “Come and you will see”

I wonder whether I would have spent the day with Jesus.

I wonder…

Sometimes we focus on Jesus being where we are and neglect to consider us being where Jesus is. Where I am is often somewhere quite colourless and insipid. Jesus inhabits a place that is vibrant and lively. I plan my life to almost avoid the extremes. Too much joy, I believe, will not last long, and come crashing down eventually. Better to be “just happy enough”. Too much pain, I believe, seems to last longer than it should and leaves me wrung out like a twisted dishcloth. Better to be “just comfortable enough”. Jesus inhabits the extremes. Anointed with the oil of joy and yet a man of sorrows he lives in the extremes.

“This is not the way it’s supposed to be,” he told the man. “This is not the life you are supposed to be living.”

How many times do we end up in a place where we were never supposed to be because of a missed encounter?

Come and see the place I stay
Remain with Me throughout this day
The life that you are searching for
You’ll find in Me and so much more

Sunday, November 02, 2008


I think that the programme QI ought to come with some government health warning! Things that I thought I knew I am no longer sure that I know them at all. Holes are being drilled in that part of my brain that is labelled “Undisputed Facts”.

I am not sure any more that the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066, apparently we have more than the five senses I learned about and drew diagrams of in Biology and centipedes seem to have lost some of their legs!

There is a sense in which I suppose we should never simply take things for granted, or accept something as true because some else said so.

Just as Stephen Fry is drilling holes in my general knowledge, I have felt over the past or so a similar drilling going in my knowledge of God – although Stephen Fry is not to blame for that!

My every day circumstances don’t seem to match up with what I read in scripture. I want to believe that God will never leave me or forsake me, but that doesn’t seem to stop me from feeling alone and abandoned. I speak truth to myself, but it doesn’t always mean that I necessarily experience that truth in a tangible way.

I was having a very “down” time this morning. It is the usual battle with the winter blues. I was reading the opening chapter in John’s gospel.

Verse 14 reads “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” That might be true of the disciples when they wrote the gospels, and members of the early Christians who had been in the crowd when Jesus spoke or healed someone, but that is not true of me. Jesus said that the people who had seen it all and witnessed it were blessed and that those who hadn’t seen and yet who would still believe were even more blessed. I just don’t feel blessed! I just feel it’s all a bit of a struggle sometimes.

The solution is to lay down the struggle before God. Perhaps we are hesitant to confess our struggles because we feel that we are letting God down, that we have failed in some way. Keeping a lid on it really doesn’t help. Frustrations come out in all sorts of ways – in physical illnesses, or, in my case, very unsettling dreams.

My morning study led to reading Exodus 33, Moses asking God to show him his glory. I think this request was not born out of a spiritual high. There had been the unpleasant Golden Cow incident (Cowgate!), and Aaron’s part in it all, the breaking of the first set of commandment stones. I don’t think that Moses was on a high. I think he was pretty discouraged and his request came out of a sense of desperation. What he knew about God just wasn’t enough to meet the challenges of leading the nation to the Promised Land. He needed more!

And God gave him more!

The things we ask God for reveal the state of our hearts. What our lips ask for and what our heart asks for doesn’t always match up. What we ask for and what God would like us to ask for doesn’t always match up.

God uses our circumstances to drive us to our knees before Him. Stiff necks aren’t always our problem – it’s our stiff upper lips that gets in the way. We wrap determination around us like a cloak and persevere when we should surrender – not to the circumstances, but to God.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Not Scotland Not Fair!

I can remember on holiday one year travelling to Paris on the train – the one that goes under the English Channel, through a long, long tunnel. The Euorstar! My husband had been looking forward to the journey for ages. He likes train journeys.

He was rather disappointed that there wasn’t anything to mark the line between when you had actually passed from the English bit of the tunnel to the French bit of the tunnel. I suppose they could hardly have stuck a notice on the side of the tunnel itself that would wisp by in a second and no one would be any the wiser. Perhaps what was needed was an announcement over the sound system. “We are now in France,”

On another holiday to Saltsburg we went into a salt mine. Trailing through the original mine shafts hundreds of feet underground, at one point there was a notice on the wall that we had just crossed the Austrian/German border!

Borders! I have crossed many of them in my life time!

There are no lines along the ground to tell you where one country finishes and another begins. They may be there on a map, but there isn’t a corresponding dotted line that someone had painted across the fields, meandering up hills and through forests.

Of course there are more tangible landmarks like Hadrian’s wall, a little to south of the border, or the Antonine Wall a little bit to the north.

I discovered today another wall! It is the television broadcasting wall.

I was very delighted to discover that my hero, Sean Bean, alias Richard Sharpe, will be back on our screens tomorrow. I have fought all those peninsular wars by his side. I have been with him in dingy prisons when he has been betrayed by various baddies. I was by his side when he won the eagle! Sharpe and I go way back!

It was my husband that pointed out the words “not Scotland”. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t bother me. I know that somewhere in our millions of Sky channels I would be able to track down Sharpe. However, right now we don’t have millions of channels. We just have four. The digi box died last week. It refused to be revived. The Sky man will replace it sometime in mid November!

“Not Scotland” doesn’t apply to all of Scotland. If I lived in Jedburgh, or Melrose, or Dumfries, or Gretna, around about the borders, chances are that I might be able to see Sharpe. I just live too far north and Scottish channels want to show Scottish made programmes.

I just wish that a Scottish newspaper, with a Scottish television magazine, had not taken out a half page article, with a large picture of Sean Bean looking scrumptious, telling me about a programme it isn’t actually showing!

It’s just not British…or Scottish…or fair!